Review: ‘Encanto,’ starring the voices of Stephanie Beatriz, Jon Leguizamo, Angie Cepeda, Wilmer Valderrama, Diane Guererro, Jessica Darrow and María Cecilia Botero

November 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured from left to right: Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow), Isabela (voiced by Diane Guererro), Abuela Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero and Olga Merediz), Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), Agustín (voiced by Wilmer Valderrama), Julieta (voiced by Angie Cepeda), Camilo (voiced by Rhenzy Feliz), Antonio (voiced by Ravi Cabot-Conyers), Pepa (voiced by Carolina Gaitan), Félix (voiced by Mauro Castillo) and Dolores (voiced by Adassa Candiani) in “Encanto”(Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Encanto” 

Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard; co-directed by Charise Castro Smith

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the animated musical film “Encanto” features an all-Latino cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old girl, who feels ordinary in a family blessed with magical powers, tries to find her special talent while also solving the mystery of what happened to her uncle who disappeared years earlier.

Culture Audience: “Encanto” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories that have mystical qualities but are also about life’s realities of finding one’s own identity and self-esteem.

Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) and Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo) in “Encanto” (Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Disney’s “Encanto” has some unnecessary clutter in the story, and the music could be better, but this animated film has enough charm to overcome its very noticeable flaws. The story gets a little convoluted and might be confusing to some viewers (especially those who are younger than the age of 7), who could still be entertained by the dazzle of the movie’s vibrant visuals. “Encanto” ultimately has meaningful messages about family and self-confidence that make the movie worthwhile to watch and appealing to many generations of people.

“Encanto” is directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard and co-directed by Charise Castro Smith. Castro Smith and Bush co-wrote the “Encanto” screenplay. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote eight original songs for “Encanto.” Manuel previously worked with Walt Disney Animation Studios on 2016’s “Moana.” Howard and Bush’s previous Disney film was 2016’s Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” which Howard directed and which Bush co-wrote and co-directed.

With all these talented filmmakers involved in “Encanto,” it’s not too surprising that the movie looks great and has a solid story concept. What is surprising is that some parts of the movie are more jumbled that they needed to be. And most of the songs, while pleasant, are somewhat forgettable. “Encanto” is not a Disney animated film that’s going to have an Oscar-winning hit song, such as “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” People watching “Encanto” might have trouble remembering at least three songs after watching the movie for the first time.

“Encanto” has a large ensemble cast of characters, and they are all introduced in a somewhat haphazard and rushed way. The characters are at least distinctive from each other, but viewers must have patience in the first 20 minutes of the movie as the characters show more of their individual personalities. There’s a big part of the story about magic and mystical spells that could have been streamlined and simplified, considering that many of this movie’s intended viewers might too young to grasp some of the movie’s concepts about which magical spells should be cast in order for certain things to happen.

In “Encanto,” which is set in Colombia, the story is centered on the Madrigal family, which lives in a magical place in the mountains called Encanto. It’s a family tradition that when each child in the family turns 5 years old, the child finds out during a ceremony what special power has been bestowed on them. The given power is revealed when a magical door opens in the house to reveal an enchanted space, where the child enters to get the power that is officially bestowed on the child. The power is then used as a gift to help people in the community.

This tradition in the Madrigal family began about 50 years earlier, when a young, married couple named Alma and Pedro Madrigal fled their home with their baby triplets, due to an invasion of their land, and Pedro tragically died while in captivity. After her husband’s death, Alma said a prayer to a mystical candle, which resulted in the miracle creation of Encanto, a safe and magical place to live. This candle is considered the key to the family’s magical powers.

Alma’s triplets (two daughters and a son) grew up in Encanto. The daughters got married to loving husbands, and they had children of their own. Meanwhile, Alma’s son became estranged from the family because he has psychic powers, and the family didn’t like his “gloom and doom” predictions. He has disappeared, so part of the movie is about discovering what happened to him.

Alma’s 15-year-old granddaughter Mirabel is the movie’s protagonist. Mirabel is energetic and kind-hearted, but she insecure about herself and how she is perceived by her family. In total, there are 12 people in the Madrigal family who are in “Encanto.” It’s a lot of characters to keep track of in the story, and it might be too much for people with short attention spans.

The 12 members of the Madrigal family featured in “Encanto” are:

  • Abuela Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero for spoken dialogue and voiced by Olga Merediz for singing) is the matriarch. She sometimes overreacts if she thinks any danger will come to her family.
  • Julieta (voiced by Angie Cepeda), one of Alma’s triplet daughters, has the power to heal.
  • Agustín (voiced by Wilmer Valderrama) is Julieta’s supportive and mild-mannered husband. Julieta and Agustín have three daughters.
  • Isabela (voiced by Diane Guererro), the eldest daughter of Julieta and Agustín, is as close to perfect as possible, in terms of her beauty and intellect. She has the power to make flowers and other plants grow.
  • Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow), the middle daughter of Julieta and Agustín, is tall and muscular. Her power is super-sized strength.
  • Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), the youngest daughter of Julieta and Agustín, was not bestowed any special gift/talent/power at 5 years old, and she feels very insecure about it. Mirabel is now 15 and struggling with self-confidence issues and feeling like she doesn’t fit in with her family.
  • Pepa (voiced by Carolina Gaitan), Alma’s other triplet daughter, has the power to control the weather with her emotions.
  • Félix (voiced by Mauro Castillo) is Pepa’s goofy and fun-loving husband. Pepa and Félix have two sons and one daughter.
  • Camilo (voiced by Rhenzy Feliz) is the older son of Pepa and Félix. A natural extrovert and entertainer, Camilo has the power to shape shift.
  • Dolores (voiced by Adassa Candiani) is the daughter of Pepa and Félix. Her power is an extraordinary hearing ability, so naturally she’s become a nosy busybody who likes to find out other people’s secrets.
  • Antonio (voiced by Ravi Cabot-Conyers) is the younger son of Pepa and Félix. Antonio, who is quiet and shy, has the ability to communicate with animals.
  • Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo) is Alma’s prodigal son who has the aforementioned psychic power. Bruno’s “tell it like it is” nature might be too blunt for some people, so he sometimes has a tendency to rub people the wrong way.

You know a movie might have too many characters when it has to spend so much screen time explaining who everyone is before getting to the real action in the story. It takes a while for it get going, but eventually Mirabel goes on an adventure that involves finding the long-lost Bruno, whom she has never met before. Something happens that causes her family to lose their powers, and Mirabel gets blamed for it. A great deal of the story is about how she tries to make things right and get the magical powers restored to her family.

There are also some subplots about the family dynamics. Mirabel and Isabela have a tension-filled relationship because Mirabel is jealous of Isabel being the family’s “golden child,” while Isbael acts haughty and superior to Mirabel, even though Isabel secretly resents the pressure that she feels to be “perfect.” Meanwhile, Isabela is being courted by a handsome neighbor named Mariano Guzmán (voiced by Maluma), who seems like an ideal match for her. It’s a courtship that gets the approval of Isabela’s parents and Mariano’s parents, but does Isabela really want to get married?

When Mirabel finds Bruno, she discovers he’s not the terrible person he’s been described as by some people. (It’s not spoiler information to say that Mirabel and Bruno end up meeting, since it’s revealed in the movie’s trailer.) Mirabel and Bruno bond over feeling like “outsiders” in the family. The friendship that develops between Bruno that Mirabel is one of the movie’s highlights. Bruno also has a trusty toucan, because a movie like this always seems to have at least one or two helpful animal friends that are sidekicks for the human characters.

Since “Encanto” is a musical, the score and songs are placed in the movie at a pace that flows fairly well. The original songs in “Encanto” are good, but not amazing. Except for a few standouts though (such as the ensemble tunes “We Need to Talk About Bruno” and “All of You”), most of the songs are not as memorable as people might expect them to be, considering that they were written by “Hamilton” mastermind Miranda.

The “Encanto” original songs are pleasant enough, but will they resonate with people emotionally to the point where most people will want to re-watch “Encanto,” just to see the songs performed in the musical scenes? That’s highly doubtful. “Encanto” is not a movie that is going to inspire a sing-along version, like Disney did for “Frozen.” The songs of “Encanto” are just not as interesting as the characters that perform these songs.

“Encanto” offers some stunning visuals, which are the movie’s biggest assets. The movie also has lovely homages to Colombian culture, based on how various Colombian food, clothing and customs are featured in the story. All of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, with Leguizamo and Beatriz getting most of the best lines of dialogue in the movie. Overall, “Encanto” efficiently follows the tried-and-true formula of family-oriented animated films where the protagonist starts off feeling like a misfit and goes on a life-changing journey of self-acceptance.

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Encanto” in U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2021. Disney+ will premiere the movie at no additional cost on December 24, 2021.

Review: ‘In the Heights,’ starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smits

May 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera (center) in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“In the Heights” 

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, this movie version of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” features a predominantly Hispanic group of characters (with some African Americans and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Dominican American man living in New York City’s Washington Heights is torn between staying in the neghborhood or moving to his family’s native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s tiki bar.

Culture Audience: “In the Heights” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Broadway musicals with contemporary music and movies about Hispanic American culture.

Corey Hawkins and Melissa Grace in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” brings a cinematic vibrancy that makes it a joy to watch on screen and an instant crowd-pleaser. The movie keeps the main storyline and themes intact from the Broadway show but adds some memorable set designs, eye-popping choreography and impressive visual effects that couldn’t be done in a theater stage production. And this well-cast movie also has standout performances that will be sure to charm fans of the Broadway show as well as win over new fans. The “In the Heights” movie is set to have its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” has an adapted screenplay written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for Broadway’s “In the Heights,” which takes place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The movie version of “In the Heights” keeps the same songs from the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Miranda. The movie is updated to include more social-awareness themes related to Dreamers, the nickname for undocumented children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The “In the Heights” movie, just like the stage musical, combines several character storylines in a tale that ultimately adds up to love in many different forms. There’s the love that 29-year-old protagonist/bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) has for his family, his Washington Heights neighborhood and his family’s native Dominican Republic. During the course of the story, he also falls in love with aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (played by Melissa Barrera), who also lives in Washington Heights. Usnavi is somewhat shy around assertive Vanessa, who plays hard to get, but eventually Vanessa falls for Usnavi too.

Romance is also in the air for car dispatch operator Benny (played by Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace), who has come home to Washington Heights while on a break from her studies at California’s Stanford University. Benny is easygoing and respectful, while Nina is intelligent and compassionate. Nina’s strong-willed and doting father also happens to be Benny’s boss: Rosario’s Car Service owner Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits), who is immensely proud that his daughter is a Stanford student, and he will do what it takes to pay her university tuition.

The beloved “grandmother” of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz), who doesn’t have kids of her own, but she has a nuturing, maternal attitude toward many people in Washington Heights. Claudia is particularly close to Usnavi, whose parents are deceased. Usnavi, who is an only child, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 8 years old. And since his parents’ death, Usnavi has become even closer to Claudia. Meanwhile, Usnavi has also known Nina for several years, and he treats Nina like she’s his younger sister.

Usnavi is a mentor to his smart and wisecracking teenage cousin Sonny (played by Gregory Diaz IV), who works part-time in Usnavi’s bodega. Sonny needs a mentor because he has an alcoholic father named Gapo (played by Marc Anthony), who is the brother of Usnavi’s father. A local attorney named Alejandro (played by Mateo Gomez) plays a key role in facilitating what becomes Usnavi’s dream: to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open a beachfront tiki bar called El Suenito that used to be owned by Usnavi’s late father.

Rounding out the story’s main characters are “The Salon Ladies,” a trio of sassy and opinionated beauty salon workers: Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is the salon’s owner; Carla (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who is Daniela’s much-younger live-in lover; and Cuca (played by Dascha Polanco), who is their loyal sidekick friend. Vanessa works in the salon too, but she’d rather be a fashion designer. A graffiti artist named Graffiti Pete (played by Noah Catala) is one of Usnavi’s friends. There’s also a character named Pike Phillips (played by Patrick Page), who owns a dry cleaning business next door to Rosario’s Car Service, and he plays a role that affects the fate of a few of the characters’ fortunes.

“In the Heights” creator Miranda has a small role in the movie as a sarcastic street vendor named Piragüero, who sells piragua/shaved ice. Keep watching through the movie’s ending credits to see a comical scene of Miranda’s Piragüero getting into a spat with a Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver, played by Christopher Jackson, who is Miranda’s best friend and longtime Broadway co-star. It’s an example of the touches of humor in an otherwise dramatic story.

The movie begins with Usnavi in a tropical beach setting, telling four kids (about 4 to 6 years old) the story about his life in Washington Heights. The four children are Iris (played by Olivia Perez), Rosa (played by Analia Gomez), Sedo (played by Dean Vazquez) and Migo (played by Mason Vazquez). The kids are very attentive and adorable. But it’s clear that Iris is the most intelligent and inquisitive out of all of them.

Usnavi’s story is about the sweltering summer when he decided he was going to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open El Suenito. What follows is an immersive, rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of joy, heartbreak, fear and love. It begins with various cast members performing “In the Heights,” in an epic sequence where viewers are introduced to Usnavi’s life in Washington Heights and all the people he’s close to in the neighborhood.

Other tunes performed by cast members in the movie are “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Breathe,” “You’ll Be Back” “No Me Diga,” “It Won’t Be Long Now,” “Cuando Llega el Tren,” “96,000,” “Piragua,” “Always,” “When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout,” “Paciencia Y Fe,” “Carnaval Del Barrio,” “Alabanza,” “Champagne,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Home All Summer” and “Finale.” Some of set designs for “In the Heights” are a visual treat and enhance these musical numbers. Two examples that are highlights are the massive synchronized swimming scene in a public swimming pool for “96,000,” and when Benny and Nina (with the help of visual effects) duet on “When You’re Home” with some gymnast-like moves on the side of an apartment building.

An electrical blackout happens in the middle of this summer heatwave. The movie has a timetable of events before and after the blackout. It’s a blackout that changes the lives of the characters, some more dramatically than others.

“In the Heights” is rich with Hispanic culture and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America are celebrated in some way in the movie. And Usnavi’s desire to move back to the Dominican Republic is indicative of not only honoring his family but also reconnecting with his Dominican roots.

Nina represents the experience of people from Hispanic families who are the first to get a chance to graduate from a prestigious university in the United States. On the one hand, Nina is considered an exalted role model for the community and has all the pressures that come with it. On the other hand, Nina describes the pain of racism and not feeling like she fits in a privileged, predominantly white setting such as Stanford.

During a few of the movie’s more poignant scenes, Nina describes how her Stanford experience isn’t as glamorous as people in Washington Heights might think it is. Nina talks about how she was wrongfully accused of theft by her white Stanford roommate. And on another occasion, Nina attended a diversity dinner at Stanford, and someone wrongfully assumed that she was one of the servers.

All of the cast members are admirable in their roles, but the standouts are Ramos, Grace and Merediz, whose characters go through the biggest emotional arcs in the movie. Merediz’s performance of “Paciencia Y Fe” will simply give people chills. It’s the type of scene that will have audiences moved to applaud and cheer loudly. Grace is also a very talented singer/actress who can convincingly portray feelings without over-emoting like someone performing on a theater stage.

And as the story’s protagonist/narrator Usnavi, Ramos carries the movie with charm and vulnerability. He’s not super-confident when courting Vanessa, and he’s often teased about his insecurities by his observant cousin Sonny. For the two big romances in the movie (Usnavi and Vanessa; Benny and Nina), it isn’t about whether or not these two couples will get together. It’s more about if they can stay together, considering that they have long-distance issues that could wreck their relationships.

Whether or not people got a chance to see “In the Heights” on stage, the movie is a lively celebration in its own right. It’s a story with universal and relevant themes that can be understood by people of any generation. And the movie brings new dimensions and nuances to the story that will inspire people to see it multiple times, preferably on the biggest screen possible.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “In the Heights” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 10, 2021. The release date was moved up from June 11, 2021.

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