Encanto, Disney’s newest animated movie, is a fantasy musical — exactly the kind of thing that made the studio’s name over the past 80-plus years. But while the film uses a typical Disney setup of a young misfit finding her way in the world, it focuses on a tighter, more contained story than previous Disney movies, and it’s one of the most emotionally compelling films of Disney’s Revival Era. From Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush, with a script from Bush and playwright Charise Castro Smith, and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Encanto is a masterpiece that makes the Disney musical-with-a-splash-of-magic formula soar.
[Ed. note: This piece contains some light setup spoilers for Encanto.]
Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) is the only member of her family who wasn’t blessed with a special ability. Each Madrigal has a unique power, from super-strength to shapeshifting, gifted to them by the family’s magical house when they came of age. Except for Mirabel, each Madrigal opened a new door the house created just for them, and received an ability that they then used to help their community.
All the Madrigals look to family matriarch Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero) for guidance. Without any powers of her own, however, Mirabel struggles to impress her stern grandmother. On the night of her younger cousin’s gift ceremony, Mirabel notices the house begin to shake, as cracks appear in its walls. When she alerts her family, however, the house appears fine and stable. But Mirabel, sure that she has seen something amiss, sets out to discover what’s wrong, and ultimately save the family’s magic.
While magic is certainly a fun and important part of Encanto, the film is about complex family bonds first and foremost. The potential of the Madrigals’ magic vanishing is the catalyst that pushes Mirabel on her quest, but every clue she finds leads her back to her family. The magic is a metaphor, in a way that goes deeper than past Disney movies.
Each character’s ability more or less correlates to the role they play in the family. For instance, Mirabel’s eldest sister, Isabela (Diane Guerrero), is the perfect golden child, and she makes flowers bloom with just a wave of the hand. Overly emotional Tía Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) brews storms whenever she gets upset. So when Mirabel seeks the cause of the threat, she isn’t out to confront a nefarious villain, or even a traitor in the midst of her idyllic community. She must interrogate her relationships with her family in order to find the root of the problem.
Disney animated films have historically pitted bold heroes against scheming villains, but this is a new type of story, one where the conflict stems from real family scenarios that just happen to be bolstered by magic. Recent Disney movies have shifted away from classical cackling villains in favor of more nebulous threats, but still, those threats were posited as big, bad things to conquer. In Encanto, the threat is smaller and more specific, which shifts the story from that typical good vs. evil dynamic into something more grounded. Using animation, magic, and music to explore more complicated and relatable themes points to an exciting new direction for Disney.
In order to balance the large cast, the Encanto team smartly does away with extra characters, elaborate settings, and cutesy animal sidekicks. (There are a few cute animals, but they don’t commandeer scenes.) The focus is on one family, in one house, dealing with one specific problem. But that doesn’t make the movie any less complex than Disney movies that trek across multiple locations, like Judy and Nick city-hopping across Zootopia, or ones with sneaky villains, like Frozen’s Hans.
In fact, because it’s so tightly centered on the Madrigals, the family’s complicated dynamics — including Mirabel’s relationships with her relatives, and their dealings with each other — have more space for fuller explorations. This is a story about family members who love each other, but can’t fully understand each other, leading to beautifully realistic interactions built around affection, expectations, and dysfunction, all bolstered by the magical metaphor woven throughout.
The family story is strong on its own, but the visuals and the music help the movie reach new heights. The Madrigal family gifts lend themselves neatly to gorgeous visuals, like the elaborate pocket dimensions family members use as rooms in the house, or the physical manifestations of their powers. Those splashes of fantasy are especially effective when compared to Mirabel’s relatively small and plain room, and her completely regular non-powered self.
But even without the magic, the Madrigal house is lovingly rendered with specific detail, from the tiles to the family dining set, which solidify the home’s coziness and the family’s closeness. Additionally, each member of the family has a distinct character design, from super-strong Luisa (Jessica Darrow), with her bulging muscles, to cousin Dolores (Adassa), who has super-hearing, and thus tiptoes around like a careful cat. This is a family where everyone looks related, even though they don’t look like exact clones of each other. (Cough, Frozen, cough.)
As for the music, all the songs are infectiously catchy, but they also all serve significant storytelling purposes. While Disney makes a lot of musicals, not all of them use music in this way (cough, the Frozen troll song, cough). But from the get-go, the music in Encanto is deliberate. The first song, for instance, introduces every single member of the Madrigal family and their powers, personalities, and what Mirabel thinks of them, with an infectiously catchy Latin pop beat and fast-paced lyrics that set the stage much like the opening song of Hamilton.
Disney has returned over and over to heroes’ journeys and plucky, bright-eyed protagonists looking out on the horizon, dreaming of adventure or romance. Encanto is not that. It’s something new and dynamic: a movie about relatives who love each other very much, but have a hard time understanding one another. It’s a movie about trying to hold up a legacy, a movie about one misfit who just wants to make her grandmother proud. It’s a movie where saving the day doesn’t mean questing across a magical land, or defeating a bad guy. But most of all, it’s a movie about family where the hero doesn’t set out on her own, and instead must actually look inward to bridge those family relationships. It’s a rare Disney movie that’s about a family but is also about family.
Encanto is out in theaters on Nov. 24.