Encanto is not the movie I thought it would be, and in this day and age of marketing oversaturation, that is a compliment. So far from being some mythic quest or hero’s journey, it is about a young girl trying to find her place in her family. The twist, however, is that so are her sisters.
Byron Howard and Jared Bush and their animators give us a vibrantly animated tale that uses magic as a tool to explore the refugee and immigrant experience. The screenplay by Bush and Charise Castro-Smith deftly traverses intergenerational trauma all under the guise of family drama. Full of warmth and imagination, Encanto found its way to stealing my heart.
The Madrigal family lives in a small secluded village in a magical sentient house, Casita, which imbues every family member with extraordinary gifts. Well, everyone except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). But her older sister Isabela (Dianne Guerrero) can make flowers bloom anywhere and is viewed by most as the embodiment of perfection. Luisa (Jessica Darrow), Mirabel’s other older sister, has immense strength and can easily lift houses.
With her cooking, Mirabel’s mother, Julieta (Angie Cepeda), can heal people, and her aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitan) can affect the weather with her moods. But aside from her abuela, Alma (Maria Cecilla Botero), Mirabel is the only Madrigal without a gift. Others in the family don’t have gifts, but they are people who have married into the family.
The gifts are just there to get to the heart of Encanto, which is the stress of expectations. Mirabel is too busy stressing out because she had the Casita began to crack, and the magic started to fade. She doesn’t even notice that Isabela is beginning to crack under pressure to be perfect, and Luisa is straining under the pressure of the weight literally being put on her shoulders.
But there’s also Mirabel’s curiosity about the fate of her uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who could see the future. But just like Luisa and Isabel, Bruno couldn’t handle the pressure of his gift, as too many people mistook his words of comfort for dire warnings. If there’s a weakness to Encanto is that Mirabel’s mother seems to be okay with her gift, though we do see Pepa growing weary with having to be in a good mood, or else she could cause a monsoon.
The point, of course, isn’t magic or special gifts. But the weight of living up to expectations which Encanto handles effortlessly. But underneath it, all is something much darker and more complex. Alma, her husband Pedro, and others fled their country because of conquerors. As they escaped, the conquerors caught up to them, Pedro sacrificed himself, so Alma and their three children could live safely.
Encanto feels epic without ever leaving Casita or the village. Part of the magic of Casita is that rooms, as one villager expresses, “It’s bigger on the inside!?” A little nugget for all the Doctor Who fans in the audience. Bush and Smith utilize this to have Mirabel go on several adventures without ever leaving the house. Ingenious since the core conflict of the movie is less a hero’s journey and more coming to grips with the past and its hold over us.
The trend in modern Disney animated films leans towards more complex storytelling, which means fewer and fewer villains. There are no bad people-well the soldiers who raided Almas village and killed Pedro are most definitely evil. But the story the filmmakers are interested in is not that.
I’d argue that there is value in having a villain in a children’s story, but I also think forcing children to reckon with the notion that much of life lacks the moral clarity that our fiction dictates is important. Namely, the Madrigal family is in trouble because Alma refuses to show weakness in herself and won’t abide weakness in her children. But that’s from a hard life filled with pain and suffering.
One of the clever ways Encanto weaves this all together is in the cultural specificity. The Madrigals are Colombian. Bush and Smith use imagery rooted in Colombian culture, such as the recurring yellow butterfly, which can stand for uncertainty. A feeling that since Maribel’s ceremony heralded, no gift has been spreading through the family.
At times I found myself thinking of another movie dealing with the immigration and refugee experience, In the Heights. Not surprising since Lin Manuel Miranda helped write the musical numbers for Encanto as well. Some songs like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” all but scream Miranda’s style. But it’s still catchy as hell.
Modern Disney animation films have grown so cinematic when it comes to musical numbers. Songs like “Surface Pressure” aren’t afraid to break into surreal imagery. It also helps that Encanto isn’t scared of color. Critics often talk about how muddy and drab modern movies look nowadays, and it becomes all the more clearer when you see just how colorful animated films are willing to be.
Of course, mysteries will turn out to be misunderstandings, and heartfelt apologies will soften harsh words. But such is the nature of Disney animated films. Encanto, however, has resonance because of its specificity and refusal to adhere to the hero’s journey. There is no quest, no object that must be obtained.
Instead, the journey is discovering oneself and realizing that family members are more complex and than we often give them credit for. After all, we may be done with the past, but the past rarely seems done with us. Encanto dances and signs with all these complex issues so gracefully that it never feels as if it’s messy or leaves a thread hanging.
Howard and Bush also aren’t afraid to allow the arguments to become hurtful, as arguments in a family can be. The love of family is so strong that it often can only be satiated with strong emotions. In these moments, I found myself holding my breath, wondering if this Disney kids movie would allow its characters to go there.
Encanto is a radiant and passionate musical tale about family and a girl stumbling upon the realization that she is enough, magic or no.
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
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