As a parent to a toddler, I can now assess the landscape of children’s movies with a much higher degree of confidence. My verdict: From a story standpoint, most animated fare is designed to be disposable at best, and shamelessly lazy at worst. The savvier filmmakers will distract you with millions of colors over billions of pixels, in the desperate hope you won’t really figure out how hollow their movies really are. That’s exactly what makes Encanto so refreshing. It gets just about everything right, delivering a compelling story, jaw-dropping animation, and a raft of catchy songs (by Lin-Manuel Miranda). Disney’s 60th animated feature proudly stands next to some of their finest works.
Set in Colombia, Encanto details the adventures of the magical Madrigal family. In an early flashback, we see young Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) and her husband Pedro on the run from violent revolutionaries. Pedro is killed during the ensuing confrontation, but a magic candle saves Alma and her infant triplets. It casts out Pedro’s killers and builds a sprawling, magical house in their place. Alma regards this as a miracle, and the house as sacred ground. She settles down to raise her children and grandchildren here. Decades pass.
As Alma’s descendants come of age, the house grants each of them with a special power: Luisa (Jessica Darrow) can easily lift thousands of pounds. Beautiful Isabela (Diane Guerrero) can make flowers sprout and bloom at will. Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) changes the weather with her shifting moods. Local townsfolk have long come to rely on the Madrigals as quirky benefactors. They eagerly await the arrival of every child’s new superpower. Meanwhile, Abuela Alma keeps a stern watch on her miracle house, and the magical family living under its roof.
Everything goes smoothly until the arrival of Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). Alma’s youngest granddaughter, Mirabel is precocious, headstrong, and kindhearted. Unfortunately, when the time comes, the house doesn’t give Mirabel any special abilities. Alarm spreads through the family: Is this merely a one-time snub? Or, does Mirabel’s lack of power signal an ominous fate for the miracle house? In either case, Mirabel must confront her feelings of inadequacy and awkward status as a black sheep.
Just as Mirabel begins to feel doubt about her place in the Madrigal family, the house begins exhibiting odd behaviors. Cracks begin forming in the floor and walls. Family members feel their powers waning. Mirabel learns of Bruno (John Leguizamo), an exiled uncle with psychic powers. His visions once pointed to Mirabel at the center of this sudden crisis. Now, Mirabel must determine whether she is the root of this disaster, or a potential family savior.
Encanto is one of those rare animated movies that will thrill kids, while also not provoking parents to bash their heads in with a polo mallet. Miranda infuses his numbers with trademark bounce and melody, especially on standout tracks like “The Family Madrigal” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Meanwhile, directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard load the movie with cute gags, and many of them land perfectly.
Beyond that, the film actually cooks up genuinely moving messages about the burdens of belonging to a family, and recognizing what’s really important about our loved ones. At the same time, Encanto never feels preachy. Mirabel’s journey to emotional and spiritual validation always feels earned. Where most animated movies aim to be a simple distraction, this one stirs up real emotions. That’s where most of the magic of Encanto lies: It works harder and aims higher than so many of its contemporaries. This is one of the best animated films to come along in several years.
102 min. PG. Disney+.