SPOILER ALERT: This post contains information about “Encanto” that readers might want to skip over if they have yet to see the film.
Encanto made its highly-anticipated box office debut on November 24, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, and then Disney+ was blessed with the magic of Encanto on Christmas Eve.
I have watched it three times already. Since Christmas night. Yes, it’s that good. But not for the reasons you might think.
It’s the story of the Madrigal family who lives in Latin America, deep within the Colombian mountains in a sprawling magical house, called “casita,” an endearing term in Spanish, which directly translated, means, “little house.” Each member of the family has been blessed with a special gift. One member of the family can control the weather with her emotions, while another can shape-shift into any of the other family members (still mulling over how exactly that would be useful).
Tio Bruno is the. . . oops, we don’t talk about Bruno.
Abuela Alma, known as simply “Abuela” (grandmother in Spanish), is the matriarch in every sense of the word. She wears the pants, if you will, and she has made it her life’s work to protect casita and the family at all costs. Each member of the family seems willing enough to go along with whatever Abuela’s commitment demands of him or her, but for her granddaughter, Mirabel Madrigal, who was not given a gift, things are not quite what they seem, meaning a journey of self-discovery and mystery-cracking are in her future.
Encanto stars the voice talents of Wilmer Valderrama, Angie Cepeda, Jessica Darrow, Diane Guerrero, Maria Cecilia Botero, Rhenzy Feliz, Carolina Gaitan, Mauro Castillo Adassa, John Leguizamo, Alan Tudyk, and Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist of the movie.
Walt Disney Animation Studios is second to none when it comes to storytelling through fictional characters and animation (except for maybe PIXAR Animation Studios, but we have to subtract two points from that powerhouse for their two mishaps: one catastrophe and one debacle, more commonly known as The Good Dinosaur and Toy Story 4, respectively).
But Encanto is a breakout film for Disney Animation. It doesn’t seem to follow the rules that Disney has set for itself when it comes to the ways in which plots are laid out, stories are told, and characters are developed.
And we think that’s AMAZING!
Within the world of animation, the name of the game is creativity, so if the stories are different, why tell them in largely the same way, Disney?
Whether credit for the delicious difference in Encanto goes to its writers, the voice actors, the directors, the artists, or all of them, we can’t and won’t say for sure. But what we can say without hesitation is that the end product is one that has the power to delight anyone who takes the one hour and 39 minutes to digest the film. (Full digestion will take longer since the film has so much packed into its 99 minutes!) Let’s get to it!
No Bambi, no Snow White, no Cinderella
Of course, we didn’t expect to see characters from Walt Disney’s earliest films in Encanto. But with Disney, we almost kind of expect there to be the death of a mother or that the mother’s passing is in some way a part of the film’s backstory. Not so in Encanto, although the man who would have been the Madrigal patriarch does lose his life before the beginning of the story of Encanto.
The story of Encanto involves no princesses at all, and it’s hardly a fairy tale, once you learn the story of Abuela before the casita found her and before her extended family became so, well, extended. But it is a dynamic tale of trials turned to triumphs and about the enduring power within the bonds of a family.
No Magical Powers
The entire premise behind the story of Encanto is that every Madrigal is gifted with special powers. Mirabel Madrigal’s mother, Julieta, can heal the sick and injured with food, and Mirabel’s cousin Antonio can talk with animals. But when it all comes down to the moment of truth, it’s Mirabel–the only Madrigal in the family with no special powers–who sees a problem and works to save casita and her family, and she uses no magic to do so.
The realness of the humans that make up the family unit
The writers of Encanto (including Lin Manuel Miranda) worked together to craft a story that would reach the audience in a different way than other Disney animated films have done so far. At the beginning of the movie, we meet several members of the Madrigal family, including Luisa and Isabela, Mirabel’s sisters. Luisa, voiced by actress Jessica Darrow, has the magical power of superhuman strength, and Isabela has the magical power of being the “perfect golden child” and the ability to make flowers bloom wherever she goes. Also, she’s perfect. Did I mention that?
Whether in other films or in real life, many of us have witnessed the actions and heard the words of those who have only one goal in mind: keeping up appearances. And while that is certainly the case with some members of the Madrigal family, it’s clear from early on in the story that Luisa, who discovers her gift of strength is fading, is perfectly comfortable with saying so, and she’s very open, once given the opportunity, to being honest about the pressure she feels because of her gift: “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.”
She even sings a song about it, and it’ll have you singing and tapping along in no time. (Thanks again, Mr. Lin Manuel Miranda!)
Isabella also comes forward with her feelings about always being expected to exude perfection. She wishes she could show some individuality and finally does so with grace and a flair all her own.
At the climax of the story, it’s Abuela who’s the most real of all, and she makes herself completely vulnerable to those around her, especially to Mirabel, who lovingly calls her out for her behavior and her attitude toward Mirabel simply because Mirabel doesn’t appear to have a gift. Rather than fighting the truth about herself, Abuela opens up about what caused her to choose this path, which in turn opens her up to even greater blessings than she’d received before.
The true depiction of a country only known for its violent history and struggle to gain independence, but a focus on the survivors
I’ve never been to Colombia, but you don’t have to visit the country to know that its short history is one marred by violence, crime, and civil wars almost too numerous to sound believable (nine wars in 200 years). And there is mention of that history in the story of Encanto, but it’s only a mention and not the focus.
As Jose Maria Luna describes in his post for Polygon, Colombia is a country whose story is one that is often only portrayed as dark, bleak, and hopeless because, in many ways, it is:
“Colombia’s problems are so intrinsic that being aware of them from birth almost seems necessary to feel Colombian at all. The genocidal conquest by Spain, as well as the subsequent decade-long independence process, set the stage for a very messy 200 years of history. Nine civil wars between liberals and conservatives during the 19th century resulted in an unsolvable national schism where the only overlap between the two sides was the exploitation and dismissal of a mostly racialized rural underclass. Class tensions steadily grew until the global advent of Communism gave birth to leftist guerrilla warfare, spawning fascist militias across the country in response.”
The entire story of Encanto, casita, and the special miracles and gifts that follow the amazing Madrigals comes about in the wake of a young Abuela Alma witnessing the death of her husband at the hands of a group wielding violence while she holds her three newborns in her arms. Encanto‘s writers make this understood, but it’s not the focus of the film. In fact, the entire focus of Encanto is on the lives of the survivors of that violence and on the blessings and miracles that often come our way after struggles and trials.
Luna, a Colombian native, says that Encanto is the story of all Colombians–that they are all Mirabels, “all struggling to figure out how to fix these evils that seem like our birthright.” It is Mirabel that first notices the casita crumbling and cracking. She’s got to know why, and her journey leads her to not only the solution for her family, but to an understanding that the miracle of Encanto was never the magical house itself, but the ones who filled it with love, belonging, and the bonds of an extraordinary family.
Her journey also leads the audience to the understanding that perhaps the seemingly most “unspecial” Madrigal of them all was actually the most gifted in the entire casita.
So yeah, this Disney animated film fan is wildly excited that they chose to break the molds with Encanto. That’s the magic of the film.