Mirabel is extraordinary, in that as far as her family is concerned, she is completely normal.
That’s the setup of Disney’s utterly charming new animated musical “Encanto,” which flips the typical children’s movie script on its head.
“I’ll stand by the side/When you shine,” Mirabel sings to her special siblings, though she confesses, “I’m not okay.
It’s only fitting that “Encanto” – fueled by eight original songs from “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda – turns into the most special thing of all: a triumph in all categories: art, songs and heart. .
It begins with Mirabel Madrigal, a saucer-eyed, soft-hearted youngster from a magical family in Colombia, where their vibrant home is home to many generations. Each Madrigal at the age of 5 reveals inner magic, for example, shapeshifting, talking to animals, super strength or powerful hearing. In turn, they help the surrounding community.
But the magic somehow bypassed Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), who, upon becoming a young girl, is still trying to be useful within an Avenger-like family of siblings. “Gift or not, I’m as special as the rest of my family,” she says.
But soon all is not well for this family whose magic was built on tragedy. Cracks – literal – are appearing in the foundations of their home, and their stern matriarch, Abuela Alma, quietly worries that their magic is failing. It’s up to Mirabel to investigate what’s going on and save the family.
Directors Byron Howard, Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith fill this tale with their own magic – expressive faces, acres of shining flowers, dancing rats, amusing donkeys and a house that becomes a character itself, complete with shutters clappers for the waves and tiles that move with enthusiasm.
The voice cast includes John Leguizamo, Wilmer Valderrama, Maluma, Adassa, María Cecilia Botero, Angie Cepeda, Diane Guerrero and Jessica Darrow.
Miranda takes a page from musical theater in her debut song, “The Family Madrigal,” which sets the stage by introducing the extended clan, and creates “Waiting on a Miracle” for Mirabel, our brave, bespectacled heroine, who stops the time to sing his plaintive tune.
He gives the rock “What Else Can I Do?” to a beautiful sister who makes the flowers bloom but is secretly restless, and he gifts the super strong sister the song “Surface/Pressure”, which reveals the secret stress she is feeling. And there’s the terrific, fun group song “We’re Not Talking About Bruno,” about a family outcast. (Also listen to some fun Miranda has with another Disney hit, “Let It Go”).
The action, technically, mostly takes place in the rambling house, though there are some magical parts that defy physics. There’s no traditional villain either, just unease as the magic wears off.
As always in a Disney animated film, the visuals are a delight. Look how a pattern of butterflies is subtly depicted in the pattern of Mirabel’s dress. There is also a panoramic photo of the Colombian community at dusk with its lights and candles burning, warm and welcoming.
“Encanto” is a film about the pressure to meet high expectations and the fear of revealing imperfections. They are outcasts and misfits in plain sight. “Sometimes family weirdos get a bad rap,” is one line. “You are more than just a gift,” is another message. Behind all this there is also an encouragement for immigration and how we should lend our gifts to the community. It’s the Thanksgiving movie we need in 2021.
“Encanto,” a Walt Disney Studio release, is rated PG-13 for “some thematic elements and slight peril.” Duration: 99 minutes. Four out of four stars.
—Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
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