Disney’s Newest Animated Feature Keeps the Studio’s Flame Alive


Meet Mirabel, just an uncertain, heartfelt young woman living with her family in Columbia of yore.  Also, meet Isabela, the outwardly “perfect” sister of Mirabel.  And, meet Luisa, the, physically strongest, hulkingest person in the village.  And also, meet Julieta, their mom, and quite the cook.  And there’s Pepa, their emotionally sensitive aunt with the power to control the weather.  Pepa is married to Félix, a good-timin’ guy who slots comfortably into the household.  They have three busy children, Dolores (who has heightened hearing), Camilo (a shapeshifter), and Antonio, who’s on the cusp of being granted his own unique “gift”.  

At the head of it all is the matriarch Abuela- keeper of the all-important sacred candle and head of the ever-bustling magical mansion which they all occupy.  When the time comes for a youngster in the family to be granted their supernatural gift (a situation unique for this, the enchanted Madrigal family), Abuela lords over a sacred ceremony that culminates with a mystical, personalized glowing bedroom door appearing- the entry way to a life of cool, practical abilities and the verification of place within the Madrigals. 

And then, there’s Bruno.  As one of the musical film’s best songs tells us, they don’t talk about Bruno.  A black sheep in exile from the rest of the Madrigals, Bruno proves to be a festering sticking point; that family secret that infects everything.  Being that he’s one of the three offspring of Abuela, this is something that’s been brewing beneath the surface for a very long while.  (Between Encanto and Pixar’s Luca, it’s been a bad year for Brunos in high-end animation!)

Indeed, there’s a lot going on in Encanto, the heralded sixtieth feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios.  One look at the poster introduces this vast array of characters, each, at a glance, appearing overly extroverted and likely to be musically boisterous- the all-too-common exhaustive norm for big ol’ mainstream computer animated movies.  The studio marketing screams “chaos!!” when it should be announcing “community”.  As in, tight knit, often rough, often difficult, familial community.  As hokey as that sounds, Encanto manages the whole thing rather brilliantly.  

Directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush (who previously worked together on 2016’s good but uneven Zootopia) do a remarkable, even masterful job, of not only juggling this expansive clan, their history, their powers, and their dynamics, but making all of it matter.  Though the mumbo-jumbo of the origins of all the mysticism and the family secrets that go along with it does get thick at times, the character motivations, interactions, and defining actions are always clear, across the board.  With a sprawling cast like this, that’s really saying something, particularly in family animation, where scrutiny is at its most intense.  (Robert Altman, also a master of such juggling, never had to with both conservative parent groups and progressive inclusionary outcry, much less for every single movie).  Screenwriters and screenwriting instructors, take note.

The more readily evident virtue of Encanto’s filmmaking is its sublime subtleties. In 1981, former key Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson published the seminal book Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.  In it, they detailed their now ingrained “twelve principles of animation” (squash & stretch, anticipation, etc.).  Although much has changed in the field since then- not the least of which being the sea change from ink & paint 2-D animation to computer-rendered 3-D- the fundamentals of the tome remain solidly intact: characters still must move and interact with their environments and each other in such ways that reflect (their) reality, or the deal’s off.  Disney Animation has always, for better or worse, been committed to pushing the “reality” of animated characters closer to that of our world.  Glassy-eyed “uncanny valley” rendering that has been epidemic within 3-D animation has been a grave stumbling block in this regard.  

Encanto represents a kind of pinnacle in that the subtle expressions and movements of the characters serve to tell us more about them than their dialogue or larger expressions and movements.  In this, Encanto’s performances are more like that of live-action narrative filmmaking than that typical of animated features.  This is fully in keeping with the “illusion of life” aspiration and tradition at the center of every great Disney animated film since Snow White, and worthy of celebration.  Simply, Encanto, in its commitment to nuance, boasts some of the best character animation ever committed to the screen.

The celebrated genius Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose continued presence as Disney’s primary movie songwriter is beginning to spoil us, once again comes through with an array of catchy and clever songs.  This is all the more impressive considering just how much of Encanto’s beastly amount of exposition is sung.  Considering just how much he’s utilized to do such heavy lifting, one wouldn’t blame the ultra-busy Miranda for looking for the first door out of Disney.  With In the Heights earlier this year and his directorial debut tick, tick…BOOM!, his recent live-action film work elsewhere is more than enough.  The overall narrative heft of Encanto, however, is such that it simply couldn’t thrive without him.

The vocal talents of Encanto live up to the exceptional quality of both the storytelling and the rendering.  Stephanie Beatriz (of NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) stars as Mirabel, the bespectacled lead in this radiant ensemble.  Beatriz imbues Mirabel with a resonant want, in that she spends her days compensating for her traumatic lack of a magical “gift” by running point within the family and the broader community.  Though the characters are many, the central story is ultimately hers.  María Cecilia Botero is Abuela, a hub of familial gravitas in both love and over-arching control.  John Leguizamo is Bruno, a critical role as his banishment is central wound to the Madrigal family.  There are, of course, many, many other great vocal talents in the mix (many of whom also provide their character’s voices in the Spanish language dub).  This particular tapestry is too thick to unravel here.

For all of Encanto’s virtues, it must be acknowledged that it is still a Disney apparatus.  Stand back and squint, and one will see potential for everything from magical mansion theme part attractions to Disney+ character spin-offs and all manner of merchandising.   While the crassness of all of this is undeniable, and quite likely the motivating business factor in the film being green lit, it mustn’t be forgotten that Encanto has a fine heart despite all that.  Disney, the company-turned-corporation-turned-all-consuming-consumption-machine, has positioned itself as the preeminent dispensary of all-ages entertainment. That massive crown has been hard-won, but in taking it, Disney (as mentioned earlier) also ensured itself a level of multi-pronged scrutiny the likes of which no film studio has ever had to transverse.  Every adult, regardless of politics, race, or creed, holds any Disney movie to some level of unique scrutiny.  Encanto isn’t perfect, of course.  (None of them can be), but that it navigates the ever-growing gauntlet of hurdles, demands, and expectations while still landing a very satisfying movie (if not quite “brilliant” in every way) is tremendous.  

Encanto goes to show that the fundamental commitment to the illusion of life is remains a bright burning multi-generational candle at the heart of Disney.