Disney has done it again, this time with a vibrant, musical tale about the importance of family, and the eternal relevance of keeping the “magic” of familial joy alive. The film, visually, astounds; with intricate animation design, it retains a captivating aesthetic from start to finish. Additionally, we are treated to a multiethnic cast of characters, all voiced exceptionally, that make for an engaging viewing experience, even for adults.
The last time we saw directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush share directorial credit on a Disney Animation project was in 2016. The film? Zootopia. That film currently holds an impressive 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. This is isn’t their only success either, as Howard had previously directed 2008’s Bolt and 2010’s Tangled, and Bush was the mastermind behind 2016’s Moana, having written the film himself. With visionaries such as these at the helm of 2021’s Encanto, is it any surprise that the film is not only this dazzling display of color, but a deeply powerful celebration of family and culture?
One of the more unique ideas found within the story of Encanto, is the subversion of the hero’s journey that one must leave home to discover who they are and what their purpose is. Our heroine, Mirabel (voiced to perfection by Stephanie Beatriz) seeks answers to both why she did not receive a power of her own, and what is happening to the magic being supplied to her family and their home. In almost every Disney film that came before it (especially the last five stories: Raya & the Last Dragon, Moana, Zootopia, the Frozen films, and the Ralph films), our hero/es must leave their home to go on their quest of self-discovery. Encanto keeps our heroine within the confines of her own home as she seeks out answers, not just about herself, but about her family, who, though she thinks she knows, turn out to be more like strangers to her.
Herein, lies the true heart and brilliance of Encanto. The message is carried dually, that we cannot hold on to expectations of perfection, nor can we be solely focused on ourselves, without sacrificing the love we could be sharing to our family throughout our lives. It is unconditional love, acceptance and understanding that help to bring families together, with the occasional confrontation thrown in for good measure. Mirabel has spent her entire life not recognizing the pain or fear that exist in her family members, the people she has been physically closest to her for her entire life. Which begs the question, are we aware of our own family members’ true feelings? Their hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities? If not, why? What are we spending our time on so much that it blinds us to these most important relationships?
Additionally, Encanto provides the general audiences’ current “need” for film and television characters to have some sort of “superpower,” for the sake of relevance, in a way that feels fresh, yes, but that also emphasizes that it is not what makes someone special; a fitting message to send to our youth of this generation who are being brought up in a new type of media influence. We are in an age of the superhero, and just as young girls of the 1980s and 90s were brought up in the age of the supermodel, young boys of now are longing for their own “body beautiful” and are, potentially, left feeling less than worthy if they cannot attain such physiques. Why else would they try to attain this if it weren’t for the notion that they want to get as close to being like the superheroes they see on their screens?
Encanto reminds us all that no matter what you can or cannot do, whether you seem perfect, whether you are super strong or not, you still have value–probably more value than you truly realize. In a way, it is slightly reminiscent of Captain Planet from the 1990s. Five teenagers, each given a power: earth, wind, water, fire, and heart. It may seem laughable, but when we are all driven by our emotions in some way or another, wouldn’t it stand to reason that there should be at least one person who is destined to discover, hone, and utilize this most important of gifts for the good of those around them?
The surface mystery of Encanto is curious and exciting, and fun to try to solve, though they don’t leave many clues unanswered for long, so don’t look to deep for answers to the narrative mystery, it is a children’s movie after all. As Mirabel’s adventure progresses, we are treated to great musical numbers, courtesy of the immensely talented Lin-Manuel Miranda who has written every song with his signature lyrical prowess. This was the first Disney film that, upon watching for the first time, I foresaw becoming an on-stage production at some point, Broadway or elsewhere.
Under the surface, Encanto is richly layered and more than accessible for film theory, as it is chock full of both timeless messages and visual symbolism throughout. In a scene of division between matriarch and child, an effective shot of a mountain splitting in two drives home the message that division amongst family will threaten the safety of the family, whether from outside forces or from within. This is just one of the many examples found within this brilliant depiction of the complexities found within family dynamics.
Though Mirabel spends the entire film without a power, in a large family full of “shining stars,” it is she who must save the family, reminding us all that being yourself is never easy. It will feel confusing, and it may never feel like you’re doing enough, especially if you substitute the word “family” for “world,” but the message remains, not only abundantly clear, but true, timeless, and appropriate: you, with whatever gifts you have, known or unknown, are more than enough to do great things in this life.
Encanto is, by far, the most emotional Disney Animation Studios film we’ve seen within the last 10 to 15 years. This is, of course, excluding Disney/Pixar films. It is timely, relevant, brilliant to look at (and hear), and is truly a cultural triumph. Encanto has set the bar monumentally high for the remainder of the 2020s, and will likely go down in history as one of Disney’s crowning masterpieces.