A Tale of Mixed Messages: A Review of Disney’s “Encanto”

It’s established that Lin Manuel Miranda had a stellar 2021, from In the Heights becoming a movie to tick, tick…BOOM! marking his first foray into film directing. Behold his best shot at gold among that repertoire: Walt Disney Animation Studio‘s 60th animated feature, Encanto.

This isn’t his first collaboration with Disney. Don’t forget, he also wrote songs for Moana in 2016. Now, ever since that movie put Polynesia on the Disney map, the studio has never been more eager to more cultures. They did the same for Southeast Asia last year, by way of Raya and the Last Dragon. It’s unclear why both mentioned movies never specified the countries where they were set, but that wasn’t much of an issue. The steps towards representation and inclusion were generally met with approval and, hey, we now have a Tagalog Disney song.  Now, as the studio marks another milestone, the animated global trek continues.  

It’s not like Disney never featured South America before. The 1940s anthologies, Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1943) included segments set in Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. Eight decades later, it’s Colombia’s turn to take centerstage.

The title means “charm” or “enchantment” in Spanish. That’s what directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard most probably felt while brainstorming with former collaborators Juan Rendon and Natalie Osma, who are both of Colombian descent. More so, when the duo finally visited the country for further research, with Miranda in tow.

The inspiration is palpable here, from the kaleidoscopic palettes, to, perhaps most notably, the ethnic diversity of the depicted townsfolk. Of course, Miranda’s songs and Germaine Franco’s musical score further enhance the Latin flair, from the festive opening number to the poignant awards season favorite “Dos Oruguitas”. But beneath that vibrant fiesta is a sharp study on family trauma, as vividly conveyed by screenwriters Bush and Charise Castro Smith.

While the time frame remains ambiguous, the story appears to begin during the Thousand Days’ War, which forced droves of villagers to flee their homes from 1899 to 1902. This is where we meet Alma, who had just given birth to triplets. After tragically losing her husband during their escape, she discovers that the candle in her possession was endowed with a miracle – one that bestows anyone who touches it with special, magical gifts.

Years later, Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) is now the “Abuela” of the Madrigal family, who all live in the sentient house known as Casita. Enter her bewitched kin. There’s her daughter Julieta (Angie Cepeda), who can heal ailments with her cooking; and other daughter Pepa (Carolina Gaitan), whose emotions can alter the weather. Then, we have the kids. There’s Pepa’s daughter Dolores (Adassa), who can hear everything; her shapeshifting son Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz), and her youngest son, Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers), who learns he can communicate with animals. Over at Team Julieta, there’s the super strong Lucia (Jessica Darrow) and walking flower factory, Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who’s the epitome of perfection. The husbands comprise the non-powered members. There’s Pepa’s fun-loving Felix (Mauro Castillo) and Julieta’s accident-prone Agustin (Wilmer Valderrama).

At the center of it all is good-natured Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who mysteriously never received magical abilities, which puts her in an odd spot among the clan. “Hey, I’m still part of the family”, she sings morosely, after being excluded from a family portrait.  Nevertheless, she remains eager and supportive, despite her own grandmother’s frigid treatment. Let’s add protective, when Casita suddenly shows cracks, and the family miracle comes under threat. So begins Mirabel’s quest to save the magic and find her banished precognitive uncle, Bruno (John Leguizamo).

Among the salient qualities of this yarn is its noticeable lack of a villain. Because let’s be real: no Maleficent or Ursula can ever match a toxic family dynamic that disowns members for whatever reason. That culture is the true antagonist here. And given that logic, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” could very well be this movie’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. It’s surprising how that, of all bops here, even managed to surpass the popularity of Frozen’s “Let It Go”, given its alienating themes.  

The whole thing can be hard to stomach, especially for anyone who’s ever dealt with being touted as the black sheep – be it for being deemed the least conventionally attractive or being the only one who struggled academically. It cuts deep. Thankfully, there are flashes of hope along the way, especially when the story makes attempts at both rationalization and resolve. Midway, we’re reminded of the burdens of having to uphold one’s gift and reputation. Lucia sings about it in the reggae-infused Surface Pressure, and Isabela, through the Shakira-esque What Else Can I Do? Mirabel’s sisters have the best songs here.

Inevitably, realizations are eventually reached, happy tears are shed, and everything’s peachy keen. It’s still family fare, after all, and we’re served important platitudes of true worth and unconditional love in the process. “The miracle is you”, sings one Madrigal, repeatedly, during a pivotal scene. It feels like the correct route to take, but the story feels stuck with “I’ll show you my worth”. It’s true that we have more to offer than our capabilities or our best assets. But, on a healing standpoint, one shouldn’t wait for such validation to come from a relative, or any external energy for that matter. Otherwise, one remains at the mercy of another person’s opinion or perception. True empowerment begins when that realization stems from oneself.

Despite its earnest intentions and brilliant observations, the resolution feels mandatory and riddled with mixed messages. Then again, there’s also the reality that resolutions typically don’t come easy. In most cases, they may not even come at all. In that respect, we’re reminded that this is still, in essence, a fairy tale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: