If there is a spine to the history of American animation, against which all of the varying short and feature works can gather in some semblance of order, it is clearly the Walt Disney Animation Studios. Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 it has driven much of the technical innovation, popular success, and cultural impact of the form. Encanto, which opens in Australian cinemas this week, is the studio’s 60th feature film.
In a hidden valley deep within the Colombian jungle, the Madrigal family live within a magical sentient house. Each member of the family has been granted a different magical gift – each, that is, except for Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). While Maribel may feel underappreciated by her relatives, when she experiences a vision of the house’s destruction she may be the one who has to save them.
Full credit to the creative team at WDAS, who have celebrated their 60th film with a story that genuinely feels unique among the studio’s past work. Unlike the numerous quest narratives and fairy tales presented over the decades, Encanto rarely leaves the confines of the house. It certainly never leaves the local community that has built up around it. It has a large supporting cast of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and parents – no dead mothers here – but no villain to speak of, and barely an antagonist at all. Culturally the film is steeped in Colombian fashion, architecture, and personality. There is no central romance.
This particular focus on the Madrigal family does raise some potential problems for the film. It seems likely to be met with relative disinterest by younger viewers, and yet it is uncertain how large an audience of adults are going to be attracted to what seems like a children’s cartoon. Encanto genuinely deserves every success; I am concerned it is too bespoke a production to receive it.
It boasts a tremendous set of characters. Luisa (Jessica Darrow) boasts a steely personality and super-human strength. The spoiled Isabela (Diane Guerrero) can make flowers bloom at the flick of her wrist. Aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) is followed around by her own weather system. At the head of the family is the stern matriarch Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), with a back story tinged with a sharp sense of tragedy. There is also Bruno – but we do not talk about Bruno.
The core themes of the film are wide open to differing interpretations, and what one takes from it seems as much based on what one puts in as what the film provides. Speaking personally I found a remarkable allegory about life with a disability. Others will undoubtedly find resonant takes of their own. It is all delivered with a surfeit of colour and movement; directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush have easily created one of the most beautiful films of 2021, including a firm embrace of a Colombian aesthetic (and arguably specific reference to Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez).
Whether or not one enjoys the film’s obligatory musical numbers will rest on whether or not one enjoys composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). With a few exceptions I am generally not a fan. The songs are packed with character development, Broadway-style, but Miranda’s penchant for fussy syncopated rhythms and high syllable-to-verse ratios make them quite challenging to follow. There is also a dearth of truly memorable numbers. It is unlikely the audience will be humming anything specific on their way out of the theatre.
Encanto is a distinctive and entertaining work, primed for the holiday season and showcasing Disney’s artistry and ingenuity at its best. It is remarkable how much it stretches the borders of the Disney formula. One can only hope that boldness is rewarded.