Every so often, a movie comes along that has a message so moving and engaging, combined with strong characters we all feel for, that by the time the third act starts, you’ve already dissolved in tears of empathy, compassion and, ultimately, joy that don’t end until the closing credits.
Encanto is one of those films. Yeah, I was crying my face off from a particular moment near the end and couldn’t stop. You will, too, if you have a heart.
I knew that it was coming to Disney+ eventually but took my time before I watched it because I was hoping that they’d do what they did with Coco and do a Spanish dubbed version of the film, but that’s apparently not happening. (They did do a dub for the foreign market, but it didn’t screen here like Coco did.)
Oh — and it does feel like Encanto could be one of a trilogy of films that started with Coco. Here’s to a third.
Both films deal with familias latinas — Coco in Mexico and Encanto in Colombia. Both stories concern grandmothers who are trying to control their families, either openly or not, although Coco covers a few more generations than Encanto; five generations in the former and three generations in the latter.
So in Coco, it’s our lead character’s great-great grandmother who suffers a loss that leads to everything else, while in Encanto, it’s the lead’s grandmother. This makes sense, though, because Coco’s back story plausibly begins in the 1930s or and while Encanto isn’t set in a specific year, we do know that the miracle that kicked things off for the family Madrigal happened fifty years ago.
Honestly, given Colombia’s history of conflict, it could have been any time in the 20th century, but given some modern references by the children in the film that may or may not just be Easter Eggs for adults, I’m going to assume that it takes place now, with the clock starting in the 1970s. The people in the encanto seem to be from another time because they’re been cut off from the outside world.
The era of the 1970s is not at all insignificant in Central and South American history, of course, and while it’s never clearly stated or hinted at until the end, our lead family, the Madrigals, got caught up in the endless guerrilla fighting alternately backed by the U.S. or USSR, depending on whether the rebels were capitalists or commies.
In the case of Colombia, the U.S. was backing the government, although the USSR may not have been that directly involved because the whole thing had started as a civil war.
Some grownups may carry this baggage into the film while kids won’t, of course, but they will get the idea of a refugee family in danger that is given sanctuary thanks to a miracle (the milagro) that will create a Valley surrounded by tall mountains that keeps away whatever unpleasantness is going on outside.
This is the Madrigal family’s personal Encanto, and it soon becomes clear that their house, known as Casita, is the center of the miracle. Every member of the family, starting with Abuela’s three children, goes through a ceremony in turn where they are taken to one of the upstairs doors. Once the kid takes hold of the doorknob, they gain a special power and the room beyond that now-glowing door becomes their sanctuary — some of which (as one character inadvertently references Doctor Who) are bigger on the inside.
Maribel’s immediate ancestors include mother Julieta, who has the power to heal people with her cooking; aunt Pepa who is overly emotional and can control the weather when it’s not controlling her; and uncle Bruno who… well, we don’t talk about Bruno.
Antagonist Maribel’s two oldest sisters, Isabela and Luísa, have the powers of being pretty while creating roses everywhere and super-strength, respectively, and Luísa is an amazing bit of inclusion and representation.
The character, as animated, has very muscular arms, which is in keeping with her miracle power that allows her to casually carry five donkeys at once, juggle boulders, and even lift buildings. Apparently, Disney didn’t want her to be so muscular but the animators refused to make changes.
Disney relented when Luísa merch began flying off the shelves because people were drawn to the character as, well, originally drawn. In fact, she quickly outsold both Isabela and Dolores merchandise, which were intended as the “pretty princess” options.
Apparently, girls nowadays don’t want the pretty princess. They want the strong princess, and that message is coming through loud and clear.
Another very subtle bit of representation in the film is in the character of Camilo Madrigal, our lead Maribel’s cousin, who is also fifteen. As his parents say, “He doesn’t know who he is yet,” and his special power is the ability to shapeshift — and it’s not limited by gender.
It’s actually not limited by anything (except that he can only change into human form), and so he jumps around between male and female, young and old, and so on. He’s the theatre kid of the family, which is also a bit more code. Camilo’s magical power, really, is being totally non-binary.
Luísa and Camilo are two of the more engaging and interesting characters in the film. The third is ostensibly the villain, the not-talked about Tío Bruno, one of Abuela Alma’s triplets — but there is a lot more to his character than meets the eye, and he is brilliantly brought to life by the animators and especially his voice actor, the always amazing John Leguizamo.
The less said about Bruno is actually the better, because he is a character worth being slowly discovered. One thing I will say about him, though — he is another example of representation and is pretty much coded as the stereotypical gay uncle. Look at the clues: Only boy with two sisters, never married, withdrew and hid his magical gift from the family when it was rejected by them, lived in basically a closet for years while still trying to keep the family together, and really needed to be accepted by his mother.
Reading him like this really adds depth to the character. It also helps make sense of everyone else depicting him as some kind of scary green-eyed monster (especially Camilo, who should know better), which is not at all like an entire generation of gay uncles experienced.
The songs throughout are amazing, but that’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the eight numbers in the film, with Germain Franco, who also scored Coco, providing the non-singing soundtrack. While We Don’t Talk About Bruno ensemble staging has become the runaway hit from the show, sister Luísa’s solo number Surface Pressure, which she performs while also carrying out her literal heavy-lifting duties for the townsfolk, really exposes her character.
So let’s look at every possible way that Encanto is not a big Hollywood movie: Almost entirely latine voice cast, except for white guy Alan Tudyk, who plays a clueless tucán: check. Main cast are all women, with the men mostly in the supporting roles: check. Set entirely in a foreign country most Americans are not familiar with: check. Heavily into magical realism, abetted by musical and artistic styles from the region: double check.
In other words, it’s not a film about white guys in armor saving the world, and it’s all the better for that. It has something to inspire and encourage kids who might see themselves as different or left out in their families, and even has lots of reminders and encouragement for adults who may once have been those kids.
The design of everything is jaw-droppingly amazing, with the use of color, lighting, and character design feeding into every part of the narrative. The animated characters in particular are incredible. They are so well delineated that we know who each one of them is at a glance, but none of them are shallow stereotypes, either.
This is a great family night film, especially if your family doesn’t always get along, and I dare you all to not have the last act go by without it turning into a silently, sniffly cuddle-fest on the couch, during which time everyone will have put their devices down.
There will be hugging it out when the lights come up.
Even if you’re just streaming it alone, this film will talk to you and then sing to you, and it’s very much worth the time to watch it. Hell, watch it a few times.
If you’re a music nerd and have seen the film or don’t mind spoiler-ish material, check out the video below. It’s a deep-dive into the song We Don’t Talk About Bruno, which explains how much is going on not only in what we experience on the surface, but in the musical structure behind it.