Disney’s ‘Encanto’ Magically Celebrates Colombian Culture With Universal Heart

Disney continues to expand into more diverse forms of storytelling with “Encanto,” a fantasy set in rural Colombia with a magical realist spirit. It’s almost surprising that it took the studio this long to dive into this area of South American folklore. For years, many of the studio’s films could be said to boast a magical realist style, where the fantastic lives as a natural part of everyday reality. This is a film alive in both personalities and colors, with vistas so gorgeous they don’t need mythical creatures romping around. As Disney Animation’s 60th film, it also helps chart new ground with new approaches to how the studio tells stories. This is not a fable about broken romances, but about the very fragile bonds of a family.

The story begins with Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), who long ago was displaced by violent upheavals with other villagers. They trekked through the Colombian jungle until they settled in a valley where Abuela’s offspring helped found the town of Encanto, which is Spanish for enchantment. A magical candle that stays alight keeps the magic of the town vibrant, which is essential to holding it all together. Abuela lives in a grand “casita” or house, with her family, the Madrigals, who all have special gifts. The only one without any special abilities is Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who is left as the outsider in the clan. It’s easy to see why she feels left out. Her mom Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal people via her cooking. Her very muscular sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) has super strength. Beautiful Isabela (Diane Guerrero) grows and controls flowers. Pepi (Carolina Gaitan) controls the weather while Dolores (Adassa) can hear everything like an antenna. When Mirabel’s nephew Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) is about to discover his own gift, Mirabel stumbles upon a dark threat to the family legacy.

“Encanto” will instantly draw comparisons to recent films like “Coco,” where the animators have paid pristine attention to the details of a particular Latin American culture. Hopefully kids who go see “Encanto” will be inspired as they grow older to read the Colombian classic “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which established magical realism as a world genre and from which the film borrows so much in terms of visual technique. The constant stream of yellow butterflies and the magical power of roses and candles could all be plucked from a Garcia Marquez tale. There are also powerful references to Colombian history in how Abuela’s origins as a young woman, who watched her husband be murdered during political violence, look inspired by that dreadful period in the country’s history known as La Violencia.  The music score by Germaine Franco has hints of national sounds like vallenato, African folk and salsa. Character designs have wonderful diversity, capturing in the look the indigenous, Spanish and African roots of Colombian society.

Yet for a story so infused with South American identity, directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith also do a magnificent job in avoiding old clichés. They shift the focus of the story from the men, who are never written as big machistas, and make it about the women and their agency. It is Abuela through her will to survive who founded Encanto, and it is the Madrigal women who have the special gifts they will then pass on to their offspring. The men are either loveable husbands or quirks like Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), whose power to see the future drove him mad and he disappeared. His reappearance will only help confirm Mirabel does indeed have a gift, but of a very subtle, important kind. For a Disney film full of leaping panthers, dancing donkeys and houses that speak through tapping tiles, the plot depends on complex family issues. There is no major villain to do battle with. The fate of the Madrigals depends on Abuela getting over her own traumas and Mirabel learning to be accepting, even of her vain sister Isabela, who lives in a room of roses, elevated on a flowery swing. She seems inspired by Garcia Marquez’s Remedios the Beauty, who was so alluring she eventually levitated into the heavens.

The women of “Encanto” speak their minds and are independent. Isabela admits she doesn’t want to marry the proper local man Abuela has approved of and Mirabel goes to look for Uncle Bruno on her own. When cracks literally begin appearing in the casita, it is up to Mirabel to find out what dark force is threatening to destroy their world. Alas, if there is a weak point to all this fabulist drama it is the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” are everywhere these days and while the songs have a spirited tone, they also recycle a lot of Miranda’s gimmicks. Like another animated film from earlier this year, “Vivo,” the music doesn’t even conjure Colombia so much as Miranda’s obsession with finding a keyword to repeat over and over (“drip drip drip”). More fun is “Colombia, Mi Encanto,” by Carlos Vives, which pops up here and there in the background score. This is that rare Disney movie where you won’t be humming any of the songs on the way out.

Qualms about the songs aside, “Encanto” charms with its magical vistas which nonetheless harbor some very human elements to its story. Like a true magical realist tale, the fabulist touches are only there to enhance the more relatable plights of the people. Luisa has large muscles but feels pressure from everyone and deep insecurities. Isabela has beauty but also fear about her future. Mirabel thinks she has no gifts, but may harbor the most important, and human one of all. Older viewers will bask in the sights, and might crave an arepa con queso afterwards, but there’s plenty here for younger viewers to learn with. For Disney to make a film about Colombian folk culture is a gorgeous, original choice. But like its best films, the universal touch carries the real magic.

Encanto” releases Nov. 24 in theaters nationwide.