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Non-Review Review: Encanto

One of the most interesting and overlooked entertainment trends in the past decade has been the extent to which Disney’s animated films have quietly become the studio’s most reliable output, ahead of higher-profile properties like Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, it’s possible to argue at least convincingly that Disney’s animated films have been more consistent in quality than those from Pixar, even allowing for Pixar’s success with movies like Inside Out.

The studio entered the twenty-first century in a state of crisis over its traditional animated features. There was a perception that the studio’s classic “princess movies” like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas or Mulan were outdated, and that the studio needed to reconfigure its image to appeal to young male demographics. The acquisition of other brands like Star Wars eased the pressure somewhat, and the studio’s animated output has become more comfortable in its own skin with female-led animated projects including Tangled, Frozen, Moana, Frozen II and Raya and the Last Dragon.

Family portrait.

The studio’s animation division has spent the past decade tinkering with the formula and assumptions that drive these sorts of films, in some ways cutting to what was always the heart of the genre. Love stories are now optional for female leads. Villains are more complex and multifaceted. Themes are richer and more ambitious. It’s perhaps too much to suggest that Disney has spent the past decade quietly and carefully deconstructing and then reconstructing the familiar “princess movie” storytelling engine, but it’s also not inaccurate. The studio has done this in a careful and considered manner, never feeling false or cynical.

In some ways, Encanto feels like the culmination of this larger trend. It is a movie that is instantly recognisable as part of the familiar animated “princess movie” template, a musical about a young woman in a remote location coming into her own to find her identity. It’s a stunning piece of animation, with a charming cast and some catchy musical numbers. However, it’s also a surprisingly thoughtful and clever subversion of some of the core ingredients in these sorts of movies. It’s a story about a lead character whose epic adventure begins at home, who finds herself without needing to leave the house.

Food for thought.

Encanto is built around the magical Madrigal family. The family were refugees, fleeing terror and violence. After a noble sacrifice protects the community from these threats, the Madrigal family is offered a magical gift. It is bestowed to the matriarch Abuela in the form of a candle. Every time that a young member of the family comes of age, they are initiated into the family and given their own special ability. Abuela’s children are gifted the power to control the weather, to see the future, to heal through cooking. The family lives in a magical house, which contorts and bends itself to the family’s needs and desires.

This story is built around Mirabel, part of the family’s third generation. Mirabel’s older sisters have also been gifted. Louisa has incredible strength, and can carry any load on her back to lighten the burden of those around her. Isabela has been gifted with impossible “grace”, the ability to make flowers bloom in her mere presence, and is positioned as the future of the family’s line. However, when her initiation came, Mirabel did not receive a gift. She is perfectly normal. She has no special power. She has no magical ability.

Explosive family drama.

The metaphor isn’t especially subtle, particularly to anybody who has ever lived with a large family. Every large family has these sorts of figures in them – the one who takes the weight, the one who is impossibly graceful no matter the circumstance, the one whose cooking can make anything better, the pessimist whose worst predictions seem to come true, the one whose moods sweep through the family like a hurricane. Encanto just heightens these fairly familiar familial roles, to underscore its point about how these sorts of families work. It’s genuinely enchanting, and as real a family dynamic as the company has ever put on scree.

By the time that Encanto begins, the family has lived a peaceful life, isolated from the larger world by the mountains that surround the house. Like any parent, Abuela has taken the responsibility placed on her seriously. Having lost so much herself, understanding the arbitrary nature of the world in which the family finds themselves, Abuela has instilled in her children the importance of supporting the local community. Abuela has built a life for her children, and a world around them. That comes with expectations and obligations.

Songs in a minor (don)key…

However, during the ceremony to impart a magical gift to her youngest cousin, Mirabel begins to get a sense that something is not quite right. Cracks begin to show in the foundation of the house. Mirabel worries that the candle – tied to the family’s fortune and power – might be about to go out. Mirabel has always been an outsider among her family, who are naturally reluctant to hear the news. Mirabel has to figure out what sinister force is undermining the family unit, and how to repair the damage before it all collapses into dust.

Encanto is very much a celebration of the idea of home. It is a cliché to describe a movie’s location as “one of the characters”, but that is very deliberately the case in Encanto. The home that houses the Madrigal family is very much alive. Its cupboards and drawers open and close to create rhythms. Its tiles vibrate and raise to guide the characters and the audience. It continually reshapes and remolds itself, turning stairways into slides and bannisters into ladders.

Party animal.

The animation in Encanto is absolutely beautiful. The film has a very playful and creative style, creating a central location that can support ninety minutes of story. There’s an infectious energy to the film, particularly in the big musical numbers within the family home. The obvious joke to make here would be that Madrigal home feels truly animated, but it’s not really a joke. One of the core strengths of animation as a medium is the ability to anthropomorphise things that might otherwise seem alien or inhuman, and the house in Encanto feels like it is really alive.

Most of the classic Disney “coming of age” stories involve the characters leaving home, often forced to embark on adventure by the confines of the narrative. In Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist has to leave her castle to live in the woods with her fairy godmothers to protect herself. In The Lion King, Simba has to be exiled (or exile himself, through Scar’s machinations) from Pride Rock to truly find himself. Tarzan is a story about a kid who grows up in a strange and alien world. Dumbo travels with the circus. The principal assumption of these sorts of stories is the idea that the hero’s journey has to involve leaving home.

Piecing it together.

Encanto offers something of a knowing subversion of this template. The entire plot unfolds within walking distance of the family’s house. Most of Mirabel’s investigations and inquiries involve exploring the house itself; Mirabel has to visit her uncle’s creepy tower or sneak through the crawl spaces behind the wall. Instead of looking outwards to define and determine her own identity, Mirabel has to turn her gaze inwards. She has to look at her home and her family life.

So much of growing up is about reconciling one’s self with the larger family unit. This is why “atonement with the father” is such an essential part of the traditional hero’s journey, and why franchises like Star Wars are so built around the occasionally frought relationship between parents and children. This is perhaps the central appeal of Back to the Future. If so many “coming of age” stories are about young characters confronting the realisation that their parents will die, the genius of Back to the Future lies in the realisation that Marty McFly’s parents had lived.

Say “uncle.”

One of the smarter and more compelling aspects of Encanto is the decision to build Maribel’s journey around understanding rather than conflict. To be fair, this has been a recurring theme in many of the recent Disney animated films, like Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon. Both of those movies were built around the realisation that the villain was not necessarily who or what they appeared to be, and Encanto takes that idea a step further. Much like the decision to keep Maribel’s journey largely within the family home, it’s a clever subversion of the classic Disney animated movie formula.

As Maribel pries into the mystery of what is happening to the magic that held the household together, she is forced to confront her relatives not as archetypes but as individuals. It’s a rather wonderful use of the animated film’s musical sensibilities, as several of the characters get featured musical numbers that serve largely to introduce Maribel into their worldview. As with Raya and the Last Dragon, empathy is perhaps the cardinal virtue of Encanto, and that speaks to the movie’s credit.

Fireworking it all out.

Encanto also wrestles with generational tension. Much of the movie boils down to the conflict between what Abuela expects the family to be, and what individuals within the family actually want. It’s a surprisingly complex and nuanced theme for a film like this, one that grapples with surprisingly complicated issues. In a broad and accessible sense, Encanto is a movie about the expectations that are often placed on children by their parents. However, it also filters those expectations through the particular lens of migrant parents – and perhaps working class parents – where those expectations are often heightened.

Encanto is a surprising sweet and moving study of this animated film. It helps that the production is top notch. The movie is anchored in Stephanie Beatriz’s performance as Maribel, but she is supported by strong turns from John Leguizamo and María Cecilia Botero in particular. The musical numbers are catchy and fun, as one might expect given that they were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had previously contributed to Moana. Indeed, the songs perhaps do a bit more narrative lifting than they have done in recent films, providing more than just thematic and character resonance.

Encanto is a beautiful and charming movie about how sometimes the most magic journeys happen before the characters ever leave home.

4 Responses

  1. In Cinderella, the protagonist has to leave her castle to live in the woods with her fairy godmothers to protect herself.

    You mean Sleeping Beauty, right?

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