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‘Encanto’ thrills audiences with vibrant artistry and an unexpected message

| Thursday, January 13, 2022

Claire Kirner | The Observer

When Disney first advertised the production of “Encanto,” scarce information about the plot appeared to indicate the film would accord with the studio’s traditional and effective animation formula, ridden with color, unique characters and, above all, overflowing with magic. However, the new film by directors Byron Howard (“Tangled” and “Bolt”) and Jared Bush (“Zootopia” and “Moana”) sifts through much more complex territory and delivers perhaps the most innovative message seen in any of the company’s recent films.

Family dynamics are complicated, both in fiction and reality. Children’s movies often feature themes regarding the importance of family and caring for our own, regardless of their flaws. “Encanto” reiterates this concept, but unlike other animations, it draws near toward the reality — and the imperfection — of familial relationships, and fleshes out its characters by developing particularly human attributes.

The Madrigals are a seemingly united, fulfilled and quite literally a picture-perfect family. The protagonist Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) is the first to inform us that this is not so, in a song in which she praises her relatives and ignores the fact that among all the members of the same house, she is the only one not blessed with a magical gift. Rather, her position is such that she almost does not exist within the household, a fact that is disturbingly portrayed through a family photo in which she stands behind the camera.

Among other themes, “Encanto” also highlights false ideals. The Madrigal family is far from perfect, living under taboos and rules strictly managed by Abuela (Maria Cecilia Botelho). The pressure is such that even Luisa (Jessica Darrow), the strongest member of the family, bursts out in song relating the anxiety that comes from rising to the expectations of her elders (“Surface Pressure”).

This pattern of sweeping problems under the rug occurs yet again with the case of Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), whose existence is so ignored that his relatives avoid even uttering his name; that is, except the song dedicated to his memory, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” perhaps the most uncannily addictive number in the film. The burden of erasing and repressing a member of the same bloodline is evident. “Encanto,” however, does not hesitate to place its finger in the wound and emphasize the suffering of both parties affected by this choice. 

A lesson in imperfections and belonging, “Encanto” illustrates there is no pedestal high enough to prevent human beings from erring and failing, regardless of any miracle or magical gift. Those who approached the film expecting a heroine’s adventure quest are surprised to find the setting confines itself within the Madrigal household; the journey within “Encanto” is strictly an emotional one.

It does so while inviting spectators to an artistic marvel, with a smooth, unprecedented and gorgeous animation. The vibrancy of Colombian culture, diversity among characters and flowing choreographies render this film a singular visual delight. 

The ever-great music by Lin-Manuel Miranda is what gives “Encanto” its enchantment; each lyric is crafted to convey a glimpse within the characters’ minds, resolving the script’s emotional tugs among colorful spectacles. In addition to fully exploring the powers of each character, every song is imbued with their personality, navigating through diverse rhythms that carry the identity of each family member. The couple Pepa and Felix, for example, bring the ardor of a tango, while Dolores presents her part with whispers akin to rap.

Partly inspired by the Colombian classic “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which also includes a large family and the apparent normalcy of magic within ordinary life, “Encanto” pays homage to this literary giant. The film’s recurrent display of yellow butterflies — which swarm in earnest during the climactic and tear-wrenching song “Dos Oruguitas” — echo Marquez’s use of the butterfly to envelop his magical characters with mystery and wonder. 

This attempt to construct a profound yet accessible drama is one of the biggest challenges for screenwriters and, while the music resolves this tension splendidly, the more sober parts suffer to remain interesting. Outside of the musical numbers, the cast’s personality is more restrained. And when you remove the magic of the songs, the plot is not exactly the most original.

For a story that relies on the ability of children to understand the nuances of human emotions, it is strange that the need to prioritize the playful side of the film affects the ending, undermining the most important transformations for its characters. It is unfortunate that this, which could be one of Disney’s most impactful dramas, is reduced to a cute story for reasons beyond the plot.

Title: “Encanto”

Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, Maria Cecilia Botero

Directors: Byron Howard and Jared Bush

If you like: fantasy, musical, magical realism, family, animation

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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About Marcelle Couto

Marcelle Couto is a freshman coursing the joint Philosophy/Theology major as well as Music. She is from São Paulo, Brazil, and was born in Rochester MN. Marcelle currently resides in Cavanaugh Hall.

Contact Marcelle