You can’t choose your family. Even if we could, are we sure we’d make the right choices? In Encanto, Disney’s beautifully rendered 3D animated yarn, a family crisis threatens the fabric of their culture and everything that holds them together. While they may not have chosen each other, it’s their choices that will decide if they can stay together.
The story follows the super-powered Madrigal family, a joyously tight-knit unit whose magical secrets are safely guarded in a small Colombian village. The family obtains their abilities from a magical candle, owned by their abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) since she and her deceased husband defected from their war-torn birthplace. The family tradition is that when each young family member comes of age, a ceremony is held where they’ll learn what their latent superpower will be. Think of it like if the X-Men had bar mitzvahs.
Except, one family member, Maribel (Stephanie Beatriz), never received her powers on that fateful day of her ceremony. Now a young woman, she seems like the odd one out in her extraordinary family, but her unflinching optimism keeps her going amidst the teasing that she doesn’t fit in. But, Maribel begins to notice literal cracks in the foundation of their magical house, ones that only she can see. Is it a sign that the magic is fading away, or something much more troubling hidden beneath the surface?
Encanto succeeds almost entirely on visual splendor and the enthusiasm exhibited by its characters, most notably Maribel. It is a musical first and foremost, armed with several numbers composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The 2 best musical numbers come early on, “The Family Madrigal” and “Surface Pressure.” The former arrives in the opening scene, underlining Maribel’s insecurities about her lack of powers while showcasing her unwavering support for family and culture. The latter is the best scene in the movie, where Maribel’s sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow), the family’s hulk-like Adonia, laments the literal and figurative weight she’s forced to carry.
What holds the movie back is an underwhelming story. The screenplay is essentially a sitcom plot stretched out to feature length, where the entire conflict hinges on multiple misunderstandings that just demand a few conversations to resolve. Naturally, this film’s young audience will be drawn to the songs and 3D animation, but I dont believe the story will stick with them like other contemporary Disney hits such as Frozen, Moana, or Tangled. The seed of a good conflict is there, but it’s so easily resolved that it illuminates how the competing goals (Maribel vs her sister Isabela and her abuela) are not complex enough to take advantage of dramatic tension. Maribel wants her family to be together. Alma and Isabela also wants their family to be together, they’re just estranged from this one particular family member. Once reunited, it doesn’t seem like it was that hard to reconcile, so it doesn’t feel like you’ve gone on a journey with these characters.
It’s also worth noting that the plot could pretty much remain the same, with the exception of a few minor tweaks, without making Maribel powerless. There’s variations of this trope, where everyone has a superpower except this one character, present in Up, Up, and Away (2000), The Incredibles (2004), and My Hero Academia. It’s starting to become a trend, but Encanto uses it only as a tool to tease Maribel in order to build sympathy, but it’s not a necessary weakness for her character arc. I’d love to have a conversation with Hollywood screenwriters to know what their fascination with this plot device is, which I imagine their response would be:
Writer: Well you see, it’s great because it makes the main character an underdog and instantly relatable!
Writer: And also, it teaches kids you don’t have to be the most talented person to be great. But sometimes we find the main character does have hidden powers. So, the powers were inside you all along, you just had to look.
Me: No, I got it!
Writer: Also, Batman doesn’t have superpowers, and that’s a big part of his appeal.
Me: Batman is a billionaire who knows 19 different Kung Fus. Even My Hero Academia abandoned this trope after just a few episodes. I think we get the idea, there’s other ways to make a character relatable. Isn’t this becoming a cliche that at least needs a fresh twist before we use it again?
Writer: I can’t hear you over my millions of dollars!
Me: Fair enough.
Ultimately, what will stand out for the film are its vibrant visuals, as well as the fervor for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical style. Once this movie hits Disney+, it could become a staple for families to play for their kids around the holidays. It will also play well for that older cousin who pretends like they don’t know the words to the songs, but their eyes haven’t left the TV in 40 minutes. The film’s underlying message is that the “magic” that permeates the characters’ world is actually their familial bonds. This is admittedly very saccharine, but saccharine works. As movie magic goes, it’s one of our favorite spells.