Written by Charise Castro Smith & Jared Bush
Directed by Jared Bush & Byron Howard
USA/ 2021/ 102 mins
The sixtieth animated feature to reveal itself from the Walt Disney Vault, Encanto continues the companies’ ongoing exploration of cultures outside of traditional Western fables or European folklore. Turning their eye towards the dense, emerald forests of Columbia, director Jared Bush and Byron Howard deliver a vibrancy that celebrates the culture of Columbia, away from its traditional westernised cinematic depiction influenced by violence or drug trade.
But for all the lustrous colour and explosive demonstrations of animated magic, Bush and co-writer Charise Castro Smith’s film strives to capture an authenticity of a Latino history and culture, with the core of Encanto being the depiction of a generational divide and the strength of family – maternal and sororal connection.
A young Alma Madrigal (matriarch of the future family) loses her husband Pedro while fleeing persecution and armed assailants, and is saved only by a magic candle that erupts in a guiding light. Desperate for a home, this newfound sorcery protects her and her three new-born children – bursting the landscape into a sentient home “Casita”, offering shelter for the mother and becoming the beating heart of a growing community protected by the Madrigal family magic. Each generation fulfils their role to receive a gift from the candle and to aid their community – that is until Mirabel comes of age, and finds that she may a little different from the rest.
Developed from the traditional and floatier scores of the past, Encanto shares similarities with contemporary animated features where the musicality utilises lyrics to both expand the plot and to offer an insight into characters. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics and Germaine Franco’s scoring infuse an intensity of rhythm and pace with the musical numbers. And those who caught Miranda’s Into the Heights will recognise striking similarities in both the beat and manner in which the songs progress storytelling and confrontation without vilifying.
It takes a number or two to appreciate the entirety of the score, a complete soundtrack that charters the course of the film and provides a continuous flowing momentum. And by the time of Jessica Darrow’s solo number Surface Pressure, both the lyrical speed and anchoring to emotions makes for a sublime soundtrack. Notable numbers also include What Else Can I Do? And the revoltingly addictive We Don’t Talk About Bruno, both furthering the film’s continuing exploration of a generational dispute – where those persecuted do all they can to protect their home and families, sometimes at the risk of damaging what they hold dearest in collateral.
The entire soundtrack is infectious, but touching in its exploration of family with voice performances from Stephanie Beatriz, Carolina Gaitán and Diane Guerrero who all find a stellar balance in their comedic and emotional deliveries.
Encanto continues a trend of the recent Disney formula, where the villains of old place down their horns and curses to instead become metaphysical foes of societal pressures. But there remains a ripple of dread and fear. Here Mehrdad Isvandi’s artistic direction shifts the dynamic into a darker tone, a much-needed break from the vibrancy and lustre of the remainder of the movie. But for the brief moments of fright, Encanto is as striking an animated feature as possible – with the diverse spread of colour utilised as a freeing emotional exploration for key characters – notably Isabela, our protagonist’s eldest sister, who rebuffs an arranged marriage, to instead garb herself in an expressionist explosion of signifying colour.
The longer time passes from the initial viewing, the more you dwell on the subtexts, the musical arrangement and, above all else, the colour. Almost embodying its coming-of-age tale, Encanto is itself a slow-bloomer, a stunning piece that resonates more profoundly than it first appears. It leaves an initial impact on the eyes and ears but transmits a richness audiences may not appreciate until long after leaving the cinema.
Review originally published for The Wee Review