Encanto (2021) Review

This year alone, Walt Disney Animation Studios took a refreshing change of pace by integrating cultural representation into their otherwise usual animated feature. They did it earlier this year — March, to be exact — in the Southeast Asian-centric Raya and the Last Dragon. Even though the film received mostly positive responses, I personally found Raya and the Last Dragon emotionally hollow and playing too safe with the formula.

Fast-forward to November, Disney turns to South American culture for their latest animated feature in Encanto, where the studio has proudly promoted it as its 60th film. Here, the film focuses on the Madrigal family, where we first learn the husband of young Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero) was captured and killed while they attempt to flee their village. With her husband gone, all she has left is their triplets and a candle. The latter has powers that not only grant Alma a magical house but also give each of her growing family members their respective gifts.

For instance, Alma’s grown-up daughter, Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal people while others such as her granddaughters Isabela (Diane Guerrero) and Luisa (Jessica Darrow) have the ability to manipulate plant growth and superhuman strength. But not so for Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), the main protagonist who is the youngest daughter and turns out to be the only one in the Madrigal family without a gift.

Then, one day when her beloved youngest cousin, Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) is getting his power through a ceremony, there’s something wrong with the house. Even the candle, which is never extinguished until now, starts to dim.

The Madrigal family in Disney's "Encanto" (2021)

On paper, Encanto seems like a promising animated film, given the involvement of Byron Howard and Jared Bush, who both co-directed the great Zootopia in 2016. The film also eschews the fantastical elements typically seen in Disney animations in favour of magical realism and for a while there, it looks as if the studio is heading positively into a fresh direction. Howard and Bush even go as far as keeping the film’s magical-realism theme as grounded as possible while focusing more on the Madrigal family dynamics.

But despite all that, the story — credited to Charise Castro Smith (TV’s Devious Maids, The Haunting of Hill House) and Jared Bush — is sadly a letdown, with the film lacking the necessary strong conflicts or any narrative prowess that could have turned this into something engaging and poignant. Encanto also falters in its musical numbers, even with Lin-Manuel Miranda in charge of the songwriting process. I find most of the songs are rather mediocre to the point they sound like they are all mass-produced straight out from the assembly line.

Still, Encanto is far from a complete disaster. The animation looks vibrant and colourful while the voice cast mostly delivers above-average performances, notably Stephanie Beatriz as the optimistic Mirabel and María Cecilia Botero as Alma, particularly when her character becomes both an abuela (Spanish for grandmother) and the no-nonsense matriarch of the Madrigal family. Then, there’s the introduction of Alma’s banished son Bruno (John Leguizamo), where his overall eccentric voice performance is not only the film’s funniest character but also a scene-stealer each time he appears on the screen.

Like Raya and the Last Dragon, don’t miss out on a Disney short prior to the film titled Far From the Tree, a dialogue-free animation about an overprotective parent of an adult raccoon with a facial scar trying its best to keep the young ones safe from harm while looking for foods on a beach. The 2D/CG hybrid animation is a nice touch and the story itself, even though simple is efficiently told with enough heart and soul. How I wish Encanto, which follows afterwards can be as good as this well-made Disney short.

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