The Plot: Having being forced to leave her home, Abuela (Maria Cecilia Botero) discovered a magic candle which gave hope for her Colombian community. It allowed them to find a new home in the jungle, including a family home with a personality of its own. The candle also granted each of them special powers to help the community. That is, all of them except teenager Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). She’s just an ordinary girl, but she has her own unique destiny. The return of outcast Bruno (John Leguizamo) brings forth a potential future for Mirabel that is either going to help or ruin her community. Mirabel sets forth to prove herself and find a way to repel the darkness creeping into her community…
The Verdict: The word ‘encanto’ comes from the Spanish for charm, spell or enchantment. It’s also the title of Disney’s 60th animated feature film in 84 years. Encanto is itself all of these these things – it’s charming, enchanting and casts its spell early on to set itself apart from the often cookie-cutter nature of family-oriented animated films. While the form of animation has changed over the years from hand-drawn to computer-generated, Disney have nonetheless kept sight of a good story to form the backbone and then garlanded it with vibrant animation which comfortably pushes it forward into Oscar-nominated territory (watch out Pixar). The story by co-writers/co-directors Byron Howard, Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush is infused with the magical realism of Colombian culture but with a familiar Disney aesthetic. There are plenty of songs and colourful animals, but thankfully they don’t feel need to talk or join in the chorus.
For all that magical realism though about a community living with an Indiana Jones-style plot device which holds them together and becomes the source of their prosperity, that isn’t really what the film is about. The magic candle serves a purpose, but it also hints at the destiny of Mirabel – the first Disney heroine to wear glasses (progress at last for us glass wearers). She’s different to the other villagers in that she doesn’t have special powers – or so they think. Her untapped gift is that she sees more than they do. She thereby goes on her own journey into the unknown to find the source of what’s troubling her grandmother Abuela. While the animation sparkles during these eye-popping sequences, it’s Mirabel journey from an awkward teenager who can’t relate to her popular sister to finding her own voice that stands out. There’s plenty of magic on display, but it’s the grounded themes of familial love that resonate the most not just for kids but adults too. All of that without being patronising either.
Visually speaking, the level of detail and imagination on display in the animation here is impressive. It’s a film to soak in on the big screen, taking in small details like the inscriptions and drawings on the doors to the multi-coloured clothes of the characters and then larger brush strokes which take in many different aspects of Latin American culture. One has to wonder if the animators studied Studio Ghibli and our own Cartoon Saloon for inspiration on how to tell a specific ethnic story that becomes universal for every culture. The sound of the film has its own personality too, with the ubiquitous Lin-Manuel Miranda contributing to the songs – prompting even John Leguizamo to belt out a tune. The whole endeavour is as closely-knit together as the community it depicts, as charming as it is entertaining. It would be easy for Disney to just churn out another animated film from their dream factory, but Encanto is markedly different and is therefore something special. It shows the same attention and care that Uncle Walt would be proud of. Get ready to fall under its spell.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Encanto (USA / PG / 99 mins)
In short: Enchanting
Directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Charise Castro Smith. Starring Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo, Jessica Darrow.