It’s the run up to Thanksgiving, and virus or no virus, we’re going one better than last year by having actual blockbuster films to share and enjoy. Disney’s Encanto is the 60th feature film from the mouse house, and while it’s not quite the blazing cultural beacon that hits like Aladdin or Frozen have been, it’s a fine example of the house style; bright, busy, in tune and on point. Encanto had a relatively short development, from Nov 2016 onwards; at that point, many expected the building of a border wall to be the defining, divisive legacy of the Trump presidency, but embracing Latino values is at the core of this Colombian-set story.
The title means ‘place of enchantment’, or simply charm, and the protagonists are initially refugees escaping from brutal conquerors; Alma “Abuela” Madrigal and her family find a safe place in the mountains, and several generation end up in the enchanted place they call home. Having suffered loss in transit, the family now believe their power comes from a magical candle that must never go out, a process which bestows a gift on each of them. Abuela’s grand-daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is alone in not knowing what her own gift is; one sibling is strong, another can hear a pin drop, another can hear animals talk, but Mirabel can’t identify her own place in her colourful family. That anxiety seems to cause literal cracks in the house’s walls, and Mirabel must solve a mystery and right a previous wrong to restore the sunny outlook of the Family Madrigal.
Encanto’s title, setting and storyline are a little removed from familiar Disney tropes, widened here to be inclusive of South American magic realism. That’s fertile ground for Byron Howard and Jared Bush’s film, although for once, parents might want to familiarise their kids with trailers and synopsis before going in, since even the characters admit to each other that the many, many facets of the Family Madrigal can be a little hard to follow. The talents behind Zootopia, Tangled and Moana deserve some applause for thinking outside the box here; the familiar quests of young people’s storytelling are notable for their absence here, and there’s no safety net of pop-culture references or rude sidekicks as a guide for young minds. Instead, Encanto aims high, packing the screen with bustle, plus a handful of tuneful songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Germaine Franco (Coco).
With a decidedly non-princess heroine, an educational interest in Latin American culture, and a sunny, enveloping view of family dynamics, Encanto is a forward-looking project that pretty much bursts with vitality. Culture wars are for those who seek to make political gains for themselves, or seek to line their own pockets by espousing fake views; Encanto side-steps any questions by offering up some old-school Disney expertise in a good-story-well-told, and that’s enough to make it a must see for thoughtful families.
Encanto is out now, in UK and US cinemas from today (Nov 24th 2021)
Thanks to Disney for big screen advanced access to Encanto.