“Encanto” has a lot of the trappings of a story we’ve all heard. There’s a big magical, super-powered family: Mom (Angie Cepeda, “Kill Chain”) can heal with her cooking, big sis (Jessica Darrow, “Feast of the Seven Fishes”) can juggle donkeys, little cuz (Ravi Cabot-Conyers, “The Artist’s Wife”) can decipher the hoots and hollers of animals. Then there’s Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, “In the Heights”), a semi-awkward teen with a woeful lack of magical super-abilities. Then calamity strikes, and wouldn’t you know, it’s up to this ill-equipped underdog to save the day, not in spite of but because of her flaws, and so and so forth, yada yada yada.
However! “Encanto” also has a lot going for it that is keenly, invigoratingly unique as far as Disney fare goes.
For one, most superficially but most vitally for the millions of little kiddos that will watch the movie the world over, the Latin America-set fantasy features a cast of characters that embodies the diversity of appearances to be found in the multifarious region. Many Latin American-themed films, both recently and historically, have failed in this regard — casting characters that subscribe to the stereotypical stock image of what a Latin-American oughta look like, or otherwise over-representing the white minority. While “Encanto” doesn’t represent all of Latin America — it’s set in Colombia — it captures a real Colombia, with bodies and peoples that look like Colombia does.
But back to the meat of the movie. The above was true: In the ambiguously-defined hinterlands of Colombia, the un-magical Mirabel lives with her magical family, the Madrigals, after fleeing an ambiguously-defined violent conflict a couple of generations past. They dwell in an equally magical house (affectionately referred to as Casita, Spanish for … little house) that serves as the bedrock of the titular community, Encanto, that has flourished thanks to their gifts.
One day, Casita begins to crack, and the family’s magic begins to wane — inspiring our heroine on her intrepid quest that will take her from … one room of the house to the next. While sold like that, the film sounds just a tad boring. But it’s the local nature of the film that makes it something special. Mirabel has a magic quest (“I will save the magic! Wait, how do I save the magic?”), but it barely takes her a stone’s throw from Casita’s porch.
While indeed contending with an existential threat to her home and family, the conflict is, by and large, internal. What’s at stake isn’t death or doom, but the dissolution of a family unit. In another twist on the Disney formula — there’s no antagonist. Although Mirabel hates her effortlessly perfect, plant-controlling sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero, “Blast Beat”), and her abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero, “Loving Is Losing”) never fails to misunderstand or condescend upon her, there’s no big bad guy to contend with, no conniving provocateur or ill-intentioned opportunist. While the film doesn’t quite figure out how to resolve this unanchored conflict in a way that isn’t too neat — things fall apart and then just kinda put themselves back together — an earnest and wholesome swing at a more heartfelt, smaller-scale movie is more than appreciated.
Both these vital little turns of the screw serve the film’s potent thematic edge. While there are obvious overtures about family and the importance of acceptance, the film is at its most interesting when it’s a representation of generational trauma, in particular the relationship with immigrants, refugees and otherwise displaced peoples. Abuela fled tangible and presumably horrific violence (again, it’s all a little ambiguous). This led her to the literally miraculous founding of Encanto and in turn a miraculous upbringing for her children: a better life. But in the Madrigal family, the specters of that catalyzing threat are inherited right alongside the magical gifts — the pressure to not squander the “better life” that their family already sacrificed so much to obtain, the perpetual and enervating expectations that must be met and re-met. Trauma begets trauma begets trauma.
It sounds a little heavy, but this is perhaps my own ornamentation — the film is still family-friendly fare and deals with these themes lightly, encasing nuggets of this through-line in a number of its effervescent songs. While fun and lyrically interesting (and, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”), undeniably inspired by the flourishes and dynamism of musical theater in a way most Disney musical numbers are not), the songs are more or less unmemorable, failing to produce any showstoppers or anything that can compare to Disney’s stellar discography.
At the end of the day, unlike its premise, “Encanto” fails to produce anything all that miraculous, wrapping up a bit too conveniently and perhaps overburdened by the behemoth size of the Madrigal family. But it’s an agreeable Disney flick all the same — it’s sweet and feel-good, it’s potentially a lifesaver for niñitos of every kind of body in Latin America and its diaspora and it’s a beautiful if thinly-drawn representation of the plight of displaced peoples. And, y’know, it’s Disney — love it or hate it, it looks pretty freaking amazing.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.