Disney’s voice cast is perfection in the animated Encanto, an ingratiating effort that includes one memorable dog and would-be comedy gem. The film even features a haunting original song penned by classical composer Phil Collins,
The story follows a young Spanish-speaking American boy named Max (Tom Conrad) who becomes convinced that his life is in danger. His friends want him to stay home and mope, but Max is determined to test his courage, insisting he’ll run away and save his adopted country while using words, actions and music to get him where he needs to go.
As a refresher, Max met Maria (Luis Guzman) in an after-school program at the high school and the two hit it off. The school rules do not allow them to spend time together and an older schoolmate calls them together to confront them, prompting Max to flee.
Max is the talk of the town for going abroad by braving the perilous journey home, without parental help or support. “I just met a girl and now I have to go away. I can’t live like this,” he implores.
Given the impossibly idealized story, the story could have suffered from a lack of drama. But writer and director Marcela Davison makes it a true story and with the support of the original background music and scene-setting vocal performances, keep the drama level relatively high.
There is another noticeable change, too: the freedom of “encanto,” in which the meaning of a word like “silencio” (silence) is never in question. And in a not-so-subtle reminder of that magical shift, Max breaks the word-break with the defiant use of his Spanish through Max’s singing and calls of carvanesa, a Laotian call to stretch out through the word that depends on expanding the vowels.
In addition to Manuel Torres and Anea Jackson, cast members include Tony-winning José Gil (the “Nutcracker” extra) as Max’s father, Victoria Trujillo (the “Jumanji” series) as Maria’s mother, Luis Guzman and Lou Romano (TV’s “Napoleon Dynamite”) as friends Max has made and Ruben Blades as a character Max encounters in the film’s final third. Blades and Trujillo’s scenes with each other are particularly memorable, even if neither actor does a whole lot with what is given to them.
Encanto comes at an opportune time for animation, following the surprise success of last year’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
The film, which debuted Wednesday evening in New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre, is available on Disney’s streaming service this year and will open to DVD/Blu-ray in the fall.
Nicky Delray contributed to this review.