For better or worse, Disney has always been in the business of making magic. We all know the worst: the unimpressive secondhand sorcery of formulaic plots, flavorless songs and lifeless animation. But the best — well, that’s the kind of magic that gets passed on for generations.
So it’s not unlike the magic of Casita, the living house of the Madrigal family in Disney’s brilliant new animated film “Encanto.” Forget Alexa — Casita’s a smart home like no other. She speaks in a language of clapped tiles and flapping window shutters, and helps keep things in order.
And she has her traditions: When each young Madrigal comes of age, she grants them a gift and a door to a new bedroom, an impossibly large and elaborately designed chamber themed around a special ability. It all started years ago, when the Madrigal matriarch, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), and her family fled the violence of their village. After a tragic loss, however, a miracle appeared in the form of a candle that granted the kids their powers. There’s a shape-shifter, a prophet, a healer and more — and then there’s Mirabel (a perfectly cast Stephanie Beatriz), the muggle of the clan.
When Mirabel finds herself in the middle of a mystery about the future of her family’s magic, she goes on a mission to figure out how she can stop the worst from happening. It’s a surprisingly small-scale story: Instead of on a journey, the action unfolds in and around the Madrigal home. But that’s because “Encanto” is most interested in the love and struggles of family, without silly side characters or romantic leads.
The computer animation, some of the best from any major studio in the last several years, presents a dazzling confabulation of hues and a meticulous weaving of precious details — like the embroidery on skirts, the golden-brown crust of a cheese arepa and the selection of native Colombian flora.
In “Encanto” there’s a robust engagement with, and respect for, Latino culture in all of its dimensions. The Madrigal family members’ skin tones range from lighter to darker, their hair textures from straight to kinky-curly. And the grand pooh-bah of the contemporary musical movie score, Lin-Manuel Miranda, provides a spellbinding soundtrack of songs combining salsa, bachata and hip-hop played with traditional folk instruments from Colombia.
The directors, Jared Bush and Byron Howard, last collaborated on another of Disney’s brightest gems of the last decade, the racially aware “Zootopia,” and they subtly incorporate an important political message into this film as well. This is a story about displaced people who build a home from nothing. Their history is the source of their magic, and they use that magic to selflessly improve their community, without needing to assimilate into it. Given our nation’s track record on these subjects, to see such a tale in a children’s movie is quietly extraordinary.
But “Encanto” also resists having its magical characters fall into the trope of the model immigrants — that they have only earned their place because of their special abilities. The Madrigal family members belong even when they’re not conjuring roses or transforming the weather. And even with these fantastic feats of wizardry, the Madrigals, with all of their relatable family dynamics, are believably loving, funny and flawed.
If home is where the heart is, my heart’s with Casita.