Encanto First Impressions: Magical Disney Musical Brings The Vibrancy Of Colombia To Life

"Encanto" is the latest animated feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios — the landmark 60th feature from the studio, in fact. It's no small thing. "Encanto" counts "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as one of its chief creatives, as well as the directing duo being the $1 billion hit "Zootopia." Not only that, but it is wandering into new territory in the world of Disney animation. Namely, the nation of Colombia.

Disney's latest tells the tale of the Madrigals, a special family living hidden in the mountains of Colombia. They live in a magical house in a charming place full of life called, you guessed it, Encanto. The magic this place has given every child in the family a unique gift — everything from super-strength to healing powers — with Mirabel as the lone exception. However, when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is in danger, Mirabel becomes the family's last hope.

I recently had the good fortune to watch roughly 30 minutes of footage from "Encanto" during a presentation from the folks at Disney behind the animated flick. Here is what I came away with.

Encanto Looks Both Familiar and Bold for Disney

As far as what I saw of "Encanto," I screened the opening of the movie, in addition to a sampling of other footage. I should mention that some of the footage was not quite finished yet, though I don't believe that colored my impressions too much, as I saw what much of the final product is going to look like. And, not to spoil my thoughts too much here, but it is pretty breathtaking.

I'll be the first to admit I'm not typically one for musicals, though Disney has historically been one of the main exceptions to that rule. It's easier for me to process people using song and dance as a means to convey basic information through the filter of animation. That having been said, I dug the music a lot. The compositions are quite lively, the tunes are catchy. And not in a "Let It Go" sort of way where you feel the need to destroy your ears just to get that damn song out of your head after a certain period of time — these are what I'd refer to as "classy catchy." Is it a surprise to anyone that Lin-Manuel Miranda is responsible for the music, and the soundtrack is great?

The thing I find most fascinating about "Encanto" so far is that it feels so familiar. This is Walt Disney Animation Studios' 60th movie, and it feels like one of those movies. The music. The story. The energy. It is, in the best of ways, providing that Disney feeling. Yet, it also feels fresh. It looks modern. It also represents a point of view from the world we've never seen in one of these movies before. The culture of Colombia is what truly gives this movie life, based on what I've seen. It provides a markedly different vibe than what has come before it.

"Encanto" looks polished, even haunting at times. It's very stylish, the color palette is pretty unique. Again, this is undoubtedly a reflection of the fact that it takes place in Colombia. And, based on what I've heard from the filmmakers, that is also a reflection of their dedication to making this feel authentic to the country. It makes me want to go to Colombia.

Fleshing Out the Many Characters of Encanto

The characters, led by Stephanie Beatriz as Maribel, feel rich and well-worth exploring. One of the most amazing things, even in the relatively small amount of footage I saw, is that all of the characters are seemingly going to be fleshed out well enough to feel full. And there are a lot of characters in the family at the center of "Encanto" — seriously, so many. So that is no small feat. It all feels magical in the way a Disney Animation movie should. The magic is largely created through some pretty impressive world-building. The way in which they build out this mythology surrounding the family in "Encanto" is perhaps what I found to be most compelling. It's incredibly rich.

Not to give too much away, but a big part of the movie centers around this family's house itself being a big character. The notion of the house being almost alive has that classic Disney charm to it. Without diving into specifics, there is one sequence, in particular, that had some serious "Aladdin" vibes going on that I truly liked.

From what I've seen of "Encanto" it's sweet, energetic, charming, and a real slice of life. It's a cool direction for Disney Animation. I can only hope the movie, in its entirety, is as compelling.

It's Not Fast & Furious, But It's All About Family

It takes an army to make a movie. Much focus is (rightfully so) put on directors. But there are many, many people behind the scenes that make movies what they are. In this case, I heard from a lot of the people involved: writers, animators, producers, choreographers, you name it. And one word kept coming up with every single person I heard from — family. No, it may not be a "Fast & Furious" movie but it sure as heck is going to be focused on the notion of family and what that means to people.

Director Byron Howard, in discussing how they decided what kind of story to tackle explained that they all realized, "Family was what we had in common." Howard further explains that the central question at the center of the movie is, "How well do we know our families? And how well do they know us?"

The hope from the filmmakers is that everyone in the audience can see themselves reflected on screen, be it through Maribel or one of the many members of her large family. "We wanted everyone to be able to see themselves in this family," said co-director Charise Castro Smith. Despite our differences, family is truly a uniting factor in the nebulous thing that is humanity. And that's what the filmmakers are leaning this movie on in a big way.

The Effort To Make Encanto Feel Authentic

Disney has been branching out in recent years with movies like "Coco," "Moana," and this year's "Raya and the Last Dragon" to explore other cultures and parts of the world. "Encanto" continues that tradition. And, despite the fact that Byron Howard and co-director Jared Bush are both white guys, they surrounded themselves with a huge group of diverse talent, including writer Charise Castro Smith, who also serves as co-director. Not to mention Miranda.

Together, the team took a journey to Colombia to soak in the culture. They put together a "Colombian Cultural Trust" that consists of journalists, anthropologists, botanists, architects, and more. They also had the "Familia" group, people from the Disney ranks that helped guide the process. From what I've seen, there was a genuine effort to make this movie feel authentic to the culture they are trying to provide us a window into.

Disney's "Encanto" hits theaters on Friday, November 24, 2021.