“Encanto” is the 60th Disney animated feature. That’s a notable number. It’s also the fourth movie released this year involving Lin-Manuel Miranda. That’s a notable number, too. Miranda has a story credit and wrote all eight songs. When does the man sleep?
What may be even more notable — certainly, it’s a surprise — is that those songs, good as they are, are only the second-best thing about “Encanto.” Stephanie Beatriz (”Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “In the Heights”) gives such a knockout performance voicing the movie’s heroine, Mirabel, that she takes best in show, and “Encanto” is quite a good show. It’s overblown at times and a bit too busy — visually, emotionally, and as narrative — but its vibrancy and ingenuity are hard to resist.
“Encanto,” which opens in theaters Nov. 24, won’t begin streaming on Disney+ until Dec. 24.
In Spanish, “Encanto” means charm or enchantment. Mirabel’s family, the Madrigals, live a literally enchanted life in rural Colombia, thanks to a magical candle that bestows supernatural powers on each Madrigal. Mirabel’s sister Luisa has bodybuilder strength. An aunt is able to control the weather. A cousin, Antonio, can talk to animals.
This comes in handy, since “Encanto” has almost as many cute animals as it does cute Madrigals: a capybara, a toucan, tapirs, even some surprisingly appealing rats. The magic extends to La Casa Madrigal. A helter-skelter shelter, this is a house that definitely has lots of character as well as lots of characters.
This is an animated film in which everything is animated. Surely it’s no coincidence that “Encanto” is set in the homeland of the literary master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez. That’s what “Encanto” is, magical realism brought to the screen by way of the Magic Kingdom.
The candle and its gifts pose two problems. One is general: What would happen if the flame goes out? One is specific: What happens when it doesn’t bestow a power on every Madrigal? Mirabel knows the answer to that one.
Even without a power, we can see that she’s the most special Madrigal. She wears green round-rimmed glasses, their lenses so large they make Harry Potter’s look like pince-nez, and she’s pretty adorable. More important, Mirabel has energy to burn and an enormous heart. Who needs that candle! Well, she does. There’s a ceremony where each young Madrigal’s magical power gets revealed. A flashback to Mirabel’s shows how crushed she was when nothing happened.
“You’re just as special as anyone else in this family,” Mirabel’s mother tells her. Try believing that when you’re 15, which can be the least-magical-feeling of ages, and you have an older sister who’s a classic Disney princess. “I’ve been stuck being perfect my whole entire life,” laments Isabela, the sister. Mirabel should have such problems. She’s an ugly duckling surrounded by swans.
It turns out that not having a power can itself be a kind of power. None of Mirabel’s magic-possessing relations can sense that the magic is in danger. She can. “I will save the miracle” she vows. Pause. “Wait, how do I save a miracle?” Yes, she’s smart as well as adorable. Mirabel’s going to need help. Perhaps that can come from her mysterious, long-missing Uncle Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo).
“Encanto” can be a bit messy. It lacks the solid construction of, say, “Frozen” (2013). But that means it also lacks the calculation. There’s a tendency to go to extremes. “Encanto” can lay things on a bit thick about family and community. “The greatest honor of our family has been to use our blessings to honor this community,” says the family matriarch (María Cecilia Botero) at Antonio’s ceremony. The ending is touching and uplifting, but it sort of doesn’t make sense.
Conversely, a few scenes are too scary for children under 6 or 7. The most notable, seen twice, shows how the candle appeared. It involves menacing-looking men on horseback attacking poor people trying to cross a river (it’s easy to think at first that the river being crossed is the Rio Grande) and how the men murder the family patriarch. The murder isn’t shown, but it’s clearly indicated.
Those two scenes may be too scary for adults. Or they should be: They pretty clearly condemn the abuse of refugees. Magical realism arriving in Disney animation is an exciting development. It’s surprising and long overdue. Political commentary, even when it’s this vague, is that much more surprising and even longer overdue.
Preceding “Encanto” is an animated short, “Far From the Tree.” A mama raccoon and her baby reconnoiter a beach in what looks like the Pacific Northwest. They encounter crabs, puffins, clams. A gull steals a clamshell from the baby raccoon. A coyote poses even more of a threat, until the mother intervenes.
The baby learns her lesson, as we see when she returns, now grown, with her own child. Like “Encanto,” “Far From the Tree” is quite sweet. Unlike “Encanto,” it’s also quite understated.
Directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro Smith. Written by Smith, Bush, Howard, Jason Hand, Nancy Kruse, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Starring the voices of Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 109 minutes. PG (some thematic elements, mild peril)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.