The extraordinary charm of the ordinary: A review of Disney’s 'Encanto'

Published December 9, 2021, 12:34 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Disney’s ‘Encanto’

Early reviews of this film were calling it the best Disney film since “Frozen,” which is high praise indeed. So I entered the cinema with the hope that I wouldn’t be disappointed, fearing that these critics from the USA may have overstated their case. So let me say right off the bat that they were right; and this is the family picture of today, and it proves that Disney still has its mojo working.

It is a daring feat of storytelling, one that turns the traditional formula upside down, defies expectations, and still manages to charm and beguile us, the audience. To understand how different their attack is, you’d have to imagine a Justice League film where you make the one person with no supernatural or magical powers, like say, Lois Lane, become the central figure. She’s the one who, riding on determination and courage alone, becomes the pivotal character in the film. That, essentially, is what happens here in “Encanto,” and it works beautifully.

In the enchanted Madrigal family, living in an enchanted house in a fictitious Colombian countryside, Mirabel is the one Madrigal with no special gift or talent. She’s plain and ordinary, the proverbial wallflower or weed, in a garden of lush vegetation and spectacular orchids. And yet, the story is fully centered on her.

‘Encanto’ movie poster

There’s Mirabel’s mother who can heal through her cooking, an aunt who controls the weather, and an uncle who foresees the future. In Mirabel’s generation, a sister whose strength is legendary, another sister whose beauty causes flowers to bloom, a cousin who’s a shape-shifter, one who can hear everything, and even one who speaks to animals. So many types of superpowers, and the animators go to town chronicling each of these powers. But as I mentioned, the story is firmly anchored on the two prominent individuals with no real super gift to speak of – Mirabel and her abuela (grandmother).

No spoilers here, so other than setting the premise and listing the colorful characters, I’m not going to say much more about the film’s development. The original Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are a delight; my favorites the plaintive song of Mirabel as the family is frozen while taking a photograph, and she moves through the figures, singing about how alone she feels by virtue of being different and left out. Then, there’s the Luisa song – she of the super-strength; and it’s here that Lin truly excels, with so many complex emotions running through this one song. Primary here is how, despite her powers, she suffers from moments of doubt & weakness.

The animation isn’t ground-breaking, but it impresses. I loved how each time there’s water, it’s so photorealistic – like they combined live action footage of water running with the animated figures. Also liked how did they make the eyes of the characters so expressive – the Mom of Mirabel being my best example of this.

And in the end, the real charm of the film is how it makes the ordinary and ungifted so extraordinary. The film asks us to re-evaluate self-worth, how we make our mark in life, and what it takes to make a difference. You’ll love how the answer lies in knowing oneself, and making the most of that, no matter what surrounds you.