BY HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features Film Critic
A villain isn’t the only thing missing from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 60th feature film, “Encanto.” Although the movie, which releases exclusively in theaters on Nov. 24, may be beautifully animated and keeps viewers’ interest for its 99-minute runtime, the film is missing some of the emotion and Disney magic that made many of its predecessors, like “Frozen” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” instant classics.
Mirabel Madrigal (voiced by the always delightful Stephanie Beatriz of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” fame) is a young girl growing up in Colombia who can’t help but feel unimportant living among her large, extraordinary family. While feeling like you’re living in the shadows of your older family members may be something many viewers can sympathize with—especially those who may have had an older sister who was prom queen or a brother who grew up to become a doctor—Mirabel’s feelings are actually quite justified considering everyone in her family has some sort of magical gift but her.
Mirabel’s mom (voiced by Angie Cepeda, “Jane the Virgin”) can literally heal others with her cooking; her uncle Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo, “Ice Age”) can see the future; her older sister Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow, “Feast of the Seven Fishes”) has superhuman strength while her other sister, the beautiful Isabela (voiced by Diane Guerrero, “Orange is the New Black”), can make flowers bloom everywhere—literally everyone in the Madrigal family was gifted with some unique ability as a child except for poor Mirabel. When Mirabel discovers, however, that the magic surrounding her family’s house is in danger, it’s up to the one member of the Madrigal family with no special abilities other than being herself to try to keep that magic from dying.
While the message behind “Encanto”—that everyone is special in their own way and you shouldn’t spend your life trying to live up to unrealistic expectations—is endearing enough, the screenplay by writer/director Jared Bush (“Zootopia,” who directs the film with “Zootopia” director Byron Howard) and writer/co-director Charise Castro Smith (“The Haunting of Hill House”) doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of some of Disney’s other animated films. There’s no doubt “Encanto” is visually stunning, and the voice cast is terrific (especially Beatriz and Leguizamo), but audiences just won’t connect with most of the characters as strongly as they should. Although viewers likely will leave the theater with a smile on their face by the time the movie ends, they won’t be wiping away tears like they did after watching Disney/Pixar’s “Coco,” a movie that audiences will naturally compare “Encanto” to due to both films’ vibrant colors and Disney ties.
Even the original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Moana,” “Hamilton”) aren’t quite as catchy as they could be. With the exception of a couple of tracks, particularly “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” most of the music in “Encanto” is easily forgettable. This is a shame since Miranda is undoubtedly one of the most gifted songwriters working today. It’s not that the songs are bad, but parents probably won’t have to worry about their kids singing any of them on repeat after watching the film like they did with “Moana’s” “How Far I’ll Go.”
With “Encanto” releasing in theaters just in time for Thanksgiving, the biggest question people might want answered is whether or not it’s worth seeing in theaters with their families with the pandemic still going on. Chances are there are some people out there who haven’t returned to the movie theater just yet, or may have only ventured out once or twice over the past 18 months as more blockbuster-type films have slowly started to be released. Although “Encanto” is a visual feast, truthfully, it’s not something you have to rush out to theaters for if you’re not comfortable doing so just yet. It’s a film audiences can enjoy just as much on Disney+ when it eventually streams there, especially since so many people these days have big-screen HD TVs. “Encanto” actually seems better suited for a streaming-only release than Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” and “Luca,” both of which (in this reviewer’s opinion) were much stronger films that didn’t get the theatrical releases they rightfully deserved. That’s not to say “Encanto” isn’t entertaining—it’s just not as enchanting as longtime Disney fans might have hoped.