Disney's latest musical is an emotionally transporting allegory of the immigrant experience
The concept of family films is taken to mean films to be watched as a family. And while many of these same films deal with families as characters, they rarely choose to dive into the darker and more complex issues surrounding relatives. This seems to finally be changing, as Disney’s animation arms tackle more difficult subjects, such as death in Coco (2017) and Soul (2020). Their latest dives into the pressures and expectations that families can cripplingly set on its members.
Encanto (2021) is directed by Disney veterans Jared Bush and Byron Howard, as well as Charise Castro Smith. The film follows the Madrigal family in a utopian secluded village of Colombia. The madrigal family is made up of members who each have magical gifts such as super-strength, shapeshifting, and speaking to animals. We specifically follow Maribel (Stephanie Beatriz) who seems to be the only family member to not have a gift, something she feels shunned by. When certain events threaten the magical reality that the Madrigals and their neighbors live in, Maribel might be the only one capable of saving it.
Encanto is yet another effort of Disney exposing complex issues to children. There is an incredibly tact way of handling both the undue and unrealistic pressures we place on each other, and the unhealthy competition and comparisons that are inevitably brought up within families. However, I found a much more touching underlying story of immigration, specifically of the sacrifices that early generations undergo and the undue pressures to make the best use of such opportunities by descendants. This is an incredibly mature exploration of immigration psychology, a subject that is only starting to be investigated onscreen as more Latino immigrant voices are displayed.
Encanto is also a musical, with songs composed by Lin Manuel Miranda. Miranda’s earlier collaboration, writing the songs for Moana (2016), was fruitful, delivering some truly catchy hits. However, his work in Encanto surpasses it. There is nary a throwaway song in Encanto, with me hoping for the next number to begin rather than return to the narrative, a feeling that I usually flip when watching most musicals. Miranda is also extremely capable of infusing his music with the cultural elements of Colombia, in much the sensitive manner as he did when composing Moana’s music.
The film’s narrative is refreshing in how it focuses less on physical journeys to symbolize character arcs (something many family movies choose to do for its obvious symbolisms) and instead focus on a single location: the sentient house that the Madrigals live in. This throws off the predictability beats in Encanto in a way that makes the story’s unfolding feel original. This choice, however, might prove to be an undue risk for viewers, who expect a more traditional structure. It is true that the unconventional mapping of the narrative makes for a less memorable story, with specific moments and songs sticking to you. However, I feel like this is exactly the goal and experiment that Encanto was after; viewers shouldn’t stick to the literal adventures of a character, but remain with the beauty and values learned instead.
As with all of Disney’s latest films the animation is truly spectacular. The character designs are original, and it was very refreshing to see different body-types finally shown in mainstream animation. However, I was more impressed (as I continually am) with the surrounding details and setting in Encanto. The clothing materials, buildings, hair, and substances appear to be even more real than a live-action film could ever have done justice.
In the end, I was enchanted by Encanto. Its great music, impressive animation, and extremely touching story make you truly let go into a transporting and magical journey.