Mirabel Madrigal is an average child in a magical family — a feeling many adolescents can no doubt relate to.
In Disney’s new computer-animated movie, “Encanto,” the curly-haired, bespectacled Colombian girl suddenly finds herself struggling with her family’s approval as the Madrigals near an important rite for all young family members: the discovery of their unique powers, symbolized by a glowing door that leads into a fantastical realm (or their bedroom, as it were).
Well, all except Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz (Det. Rosa Diaz on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). She has no magical powers, a fact that everyone’s happy to remind her of. Fortunately, Mirabel’s not a boilerplate teenage outcast. She’s a little weird and insecure, but also funny and sensitive and headstrong in ways the people of her village aren’t. That makes her the right focal point for an epic, family-friendly tale with a surprisingly intimate feel.
With typically tender, stirring music from Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Surface Pressure” is destined to become a YouTube banger) and an unprecedented investment in its South American characters and Spanglish dialogue, “Encanto” also represents another jump forward for a company that’s found success with diverse protagonists (see recent MCU, Star Wars and Disney+ releases). “Encanto” works, however, because it’s a universal fable about failing to live up to standards amid long-held secrets, family spats and selfish myth-making.
With the warm, earthy color palette for its mountain-jungle setting — reminiscent of the island paradise in “Moana,” which also featured Miranda’s original music — and fetching character models, the film is a grab-bag of eye candy. Its bubble-eyed cuteness and lack of obvious stakes can feel glazing at times, but its supporting characters (all of whom get an impressive amount of screen time and depth) feel more fleshed-out than in most animated films.
The gorgeous, lilting Isabela (Diane Guerrero) leaves a trail of intoxicating flowers wherever she goes. Luisa (Jessica Darrow), on the other hand, possesses Herculean strength (which also reads as “less femininity”) and uses it to keep all manner of crises in her enchanted, agricultural village at bay.
The Madrigal family’s powers are unabashedly symbolic. The girls’ mother, Julieta (Angie Sepeda) can heal people with food, although the men tend to be less enchanting than the women. Julieta’s husband and Mirabel’s dad, Agustín (“That ’70s Show” vet Wilmer Valderrama) is the reassuring but slightly feckless papa. Supporting characters such as Pepa Madrigal (Carolina Gaitán), Mirabel’s aunt, can control the weather but are usually followed by thundering rainclouds, while matriarch Abuela Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero), the literal keeper of the family flame, frets over ritualistic preparations and Mirabel’s role in the family.
As “Encanto’s” most important character besides Mirabel, Abuela Alma strives to protect a family-shattering mystery that is connected to their shadowy cousin Bruno (an essential John Leguizamo), who can see the future. But Mirabel won’t blindly swallow Abuela Alma’s stories and embarks on a perilous journey to discover the truth — and save the family’s magic before it dies forever.
Directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush (“Zootopia”) deftly navigate the potential contradictions and snags of “Encanto,” introducing yet another original Disney character to a popular culture choked with remakes and reboots. Even as Disney itself doubles down on same-y comic book and sci-fi franchises, its support for brand new stories is something to be celebrated. The legendary Disney-princess mold has been broken, and a new one has been cast for young, independent female characters, from Moana to Raya to Mirabel. (Disney isn’t much using the “princess” term these days, but that’s roughly the archetype.)
Funny, cute, heart-tugging and proud, “Encanto” is arguably the best of this new crop, despite its relative breeziness. Far from a staid formula, the effervescent mixture of Miranda’s music, diverse (and especially Spanish-language) cultures, and universal themes has yielded some of the best family fare of the past decade.