About six months ago when I reviewed In the Heights, I said there were only two Latin-themed musical films this year. I severely undercounted — the animated Vivo enjoying a brief theatrical release in September and Encanto with a much bigger Thanksgiving opening. (Do we count that live-action Cinderella starring Camila Cabello, too?) Those first three all feature songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which tracks, given his work ethic and fecund imagination. The Disney musical ranks somewhere between the other two in terms of quality, but among other Disney musicals it’s one of the studio’s better efforts.
The film is set in a village in Colombia, where the Madrigal family lives in a magic casita and essentially rules this refugee community because all save one of the descendants of Abuela Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero) have magical powers. That exception is Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), who can’t help but feel like the least special member of this extended family when her sisters Isabela and Luisa (voiced by Diane Guerrero and Jessica Darrow) can instantly grow flowers and lift entire buildings, respectively. When everyone’s powers start fritzing, Mirabel suspects that the key to restoring them lies with her Tío Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo), the future seer and family outcast who is a taboo topic of conversation at la casa Madrigal.
The South American setting allows Disney’s animators to draw a new range of flora, fauna, and food (the grilled corn here is choclos, not elotes) as well as numerous references to the magical-realist novels of Gabriel García Márquez and, oddly enough, the 1998 Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes. The cast here is solid rather than showcasing any spectacular performances, and the clever soundtrack suffers from the lack of a bona fide showstopper. The visual gags in Luisa’s reggaeton song “Surface Pressure” and the group cha-cha number “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” (whose vocal lines are way more complex than you typically find in Disney musicals) are actually more memorable than the songs themselves.
More potent is the way Mirabel breaks the mold of Disney’s heroines, being neither athletic like Luisa nor effortlessly pretty like Isabela — indeed, when Mirabel addresses the latter as “princess,” the joke lands because Isabela fits the mold so neatly. Later she discovers from the sisters’ respective songs that they’re privately going insane from the expectations that their talents have raised for them. All that pressure comes from hard-shelled Abuela, who’s driven by fear that her family will suffer a repeat of the loss and devastation that drove her from her home in her youth. She’s so obsessed with projecting strength that everyone in her family seems to be hiding something. They don’t have Thanksgiving in Colombia, but if you venture out to see Encanto this weekend, I dare say you’ll recognize something of the Madrigals in your family gathering. Maybe it’ll even convince you to add some almojábanas and Colombian hot chocolate (don’t forget the cheese) to your holiday table.
Voices by Stephanie Beatriz and John Leguizamo. Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard. Written by Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith. Rated PG.