Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the 60th feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios. It’s directed by the Oscar-winning team from Zootopia (2016). It’s a musical with songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton and Moana). It’s the first film to feature a Hispanic or Latino protagonist since something like The Three Cabelleros (1945), which was a Donald Duck cartoon for the most part. Unlike those Disney films from the 1940’s, this film can’t be accused of cultural tourism or having Latin characters here as tokens or props. Like Moana (2016) or Pixar’s Coco (2017), there is a push here to ground the narrative within an ethnic minority and give that minority the representation of which it’s been deprived in big-budget animation. Coco was specifically about Mexicans. The company could’ve stopped there in terms of representing Latinos, but, to come along in such a relatively short period of time with this film is a positive step. One could argue that Coco was a Pixar film and separate from this one, which is a Disney film. Yet, Disney owns Pixar, so they’re really one and the same.
I’m giving the company credit for developing these two Latino films within a short span. Coco was centered on a little boy and his experiences. Here, the film is centered on a possibly, prepubescent girl, though she could in fact be a teenager or older. Coco was set in Mexico. This film is instead set in Colombia in South America. Like with Coco, the filmmakers here do their research to make sure that everything in this work is faithful or authentic of the country and the culture. I’m sure there’s a lot here that Latino audiences will recognize. For example, one of the characters reference “arepa con queso” or arepa de queso, which is a signature Colombian dish.
Stephanie Beatriz (In the Heights and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) stars as the voice of Mirabel Madrigal, the girl in question who is the only member of her family who didn’t get a “gift.” Her family’s backstory goes back 50 years when her grandmother or “abuela” fled her hometown with her husband and their three children. Mirabel’s maternal grandmother was apart of a group of immigrants who escaped into the mountains, but her maternal grandfather died and the candle that was used to light their way at night becomes magical and uses its power to build a house, which then grants unique powers to each of Mirabel’s family. Everyone in Mirabel’s family got a unique power or gift, except Mirabel.
One day, the magical house where they all live, which they call “casita,” begins to crack. All of the family members begin to lose their powers. Mirabel wants to know why and try to stop it. Like Moana, the story is basically about a girl who goes on a journey to save her family. What’s odd though is that the journey doesn’t involve her leaving her house. Mirabel stays in her family’s house for most of the film, which makes sense, given that the house is the source of their powers. Yet, it breaks what is the typical Disney or Pixar formula of characters having to go on a literal journey that takes them far away from home.
María Cecilia Botero voices Alma Madrigal, the grandmother to Mirabel, the so-called “abuela.” She’s the one who had the magical candle, which started this whole thing. Once she realized her family had these gifts, she decided to use those gifts to build a community around her home and help the immigrants who had fled with her to live a better life. After 50 years, that’s what she did. When the cracks in the house start to appear and the family members start losing their powers, she becomes desperate to hold onto it anyway that she can. However, because Mirabel is the only family member who didn’t get a gift, Alma starts to think that Mirabel is the one responsible for the cracks and for everyone else losing their powers.
Given that premise, one can guess what the message will be at the end of this film. One of the early songs is about Mirabel feeling sad about not having powers like the rest of her family and her feeling like she can’t help them, or feeling excluded to some degree. Obviously, the message at the end of this film must be that she has to learn to accept and love herself for who she is, which is a person without powers who is still ever much apart of the family, regardless of what she does or doesn’t have. Given the lyrics in the songs of Mirabel’s sisters, one might assume that another message at the end of this film might be that having super-powers doesn’t make a person special and doing without them might even be better, which would go against the super-hero genre that Disney itself built up when it bought Marvel Studios. However, the film undermines that message, which to me would have been more powerful or subversive.
There are some other questionable narrative decisions that boggled my mind. Mirabel feels sad because she’s the only one in her family who doesn’t have a “gift” or a super-power. However, that’s not true. She isn’t the only one in her family who doesn’t have a gift. Her father, Agustín, voiced by Wilmer Valerrama (That 70’s Show and From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series), doesn’t have a gift. Her uncle, Félix, voiced by Mauro Castillo, also doesn’t have a gift. Notably, Félix is a dark-skinned Colombian with probable African origins. After the hubbub about In the Heights (2021), having a dark-skinned Latino was appreciated. Yet, if Mirabel is feeling sad about not having powers, it would make sense that at some point, she would have a conversation with either her father or her uncle about it. Having that conversation would have perhaps nullified the inner conflict and thus the character dilemma for Mirabel.
Yet, even if one dismissed Agustín and Félix as not being part of the Madrigal family by blood but instead by marriage, one can’t dismiss Alma, the grandmother to Mirabel. Alma’s family has gifts, but Alma herself has no gift. She possessed the candle, which granted all the gifts to her descendants but not to her. Her children have powers. Her son, Bruno, voiced by John Leguizamo (John Wick and Ice Age), is clairvoyant. Her daughter, Julieta, can heal people with food, Alma’s other daughter, Pepa, can control the weather. Yet, Alma has no power of her own. At no point though does Mirabel have a conversation with Alma about this issue. It only serves to isolate Mirabel from the family in an unnecessary way.
It’s an issue that doesn’t matter too much because the film becomes about Mirabel trying to save the powers of her family. This would be fine, if the film had done a better job of convincing us why the family having these powers matter or what difference the powers make. Other than Mirabel’s sister, Luisa, who has super-strength, the powers of the other family members aren’t depicted as helpful to the community in any meaningful way. It even got to a point where the town’s people felt lazy, deferring a lot of their work to Luisa, which is an unfair burden that Luisa’s song addresses, but it didn’t seem sufficient enough or enough of an exploration of the dynamic of how much the town depends on the family’s powers.
Rated PG for thematic elements and mild peril.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.