Encanto: Disney’s First Therapeutic Animated Film

In late December, I was over my sister’s place and we were browsing through Disney+. The tile for Encanto caught my eye. I had no idea what it was about, but my sister urged me to watch it. “It’s good – I’ve seen it like 5 times”. Alrighty then. And she was right — even though during that first watch, I was dealing with feeding hungry kids so it didn’t have my undivided attention. But I was impressed with the colorful portrayal of Columbian culture and the great music (more on that later).

I will try to be respectful to those who haven’t seen the movie yet. But I strongly urge you to watch it first. Spoilers may follow!

It wasn’t until I got to my own house a week or so later, that I got the chance to sit down and watch it again. And I was astounded. Not only had Disney presented a story that leapt well outside of their usual framework (gorgeous female protagonist, stumbles into adventures and finds love; they live happily ever after; the end). It also gave a sense of psychological comfort from watching it — like a good therapy session. It was so peculiar in that sense. And not that I’ve watched it probably 4-5 more times, I’m not 100% why….but here is my hypothesis:

Encanto is a very female-centric film

I’m not sure how non-feminists feel when they see Encanto, but male characters do not carry this film. Tito Bruno is a man (and the subject on one of the film’s most memorable songs, but I’ll get to the music part in a bit, I promise ๐Ÿ™‚ ) who is a main character. But his masculinity is not a key part of his persona. The bulk of character development and the story arc really centers on the women. The protagonist (Mirabel) her abuela (Alma) and then Mirabel’s sisters, mother, cousin and aunt (Isabella, Louisa, Julietta, Pepa and Dolores).

Madrigal family

(l-r) Luisa, Isabella, Alma, Mirabel, Augustin, Julietta, Camillo, Pepa, Felix, Dolores, Antonio (on cheetah)

There is no knight in shining armor who will save the day in this movie. Louisa is the strong/brave one in this film – and she is female. It’s really all about the women. And for better or for worse, I could really relate to that. So kudos to Disney on finally making a movie centered on human women who aren’t at all focused on the dynamic between themselves and a man (except for the sidebar engagement of Isabella and Mariano — but that was hardly a main arc of the movie).

A Message for Adults

I heard someone remark that “Encanto is a movie for grownups”. I can see that. The colors and the music are enough to hook the kids in. But I know that I am more likely to sit and watch the entire thing than my 4 and 5 year old kids are. It’s a pretty complex message that the film has to convey. First of all – there is no obvious, scary villain. In spite of having fantastic magical powers and the fact that they all live in an enchanted house – the Madrigal family is actually very relatable. You have sibling rivalries and intergenerational dynamics at play. You have family grudges and bad behavior that gets swept under the rug in the name of family harmony.

Colorism Goes Out the Window (Kinda)

While Encanto is not the first Disney animated film to feature Latinos or people of African decent; this is the first that I’ve seen where it is presented in a realistic lens. What do I mean by that? Well, Columbia, like so many Latino countries, has a long history of various races living and intermingling with each other. Unlike in Princess and the Frog, Pocohontas, or the like, interracial couplings aren’t created by someone sweeping into town from a foreign place. They are just a normal part of life. And such couples have offspring. In this viral picture below, a young Black boy smiles at his ‘twin’ in the movie — Antonio (who is Mirabel’s cousin):

Neither Mirabel or the movie’s “prettiest girl” Isabella, are the fairest-skinned characters in the movie. Members of the Madrigal family run across a full spectrum of skin tones and hair types. However this is still Disney we are talking about. If a spectrum exists, then Mirabel, the protagonist, is in the middle….with her loose curls and medium brown skin. I guess we aren’t at the point yet where we can have a character that looks more like Dolores, in the forefront, in front of multiracial family.

The Music is Amazing

The music in Encanto was all done by Lin-Manuel Miranda – of Hamilton fame. At first, it stuck me as a bit odd in how it hit you. Remember, Miranda largely writes for musical theatre. So the songs definitely had this narrative feel — packed full of telling lyrics. Even so, the songs stick in your head — even when you don’t have the lyrical chops to actually sing them.

The film’s runaway hit seems to be “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”; but the entire soundtrack is great to listen to.

Everyone Needs a Village

One of the most heartwarming parts of the movie is when the local community comes to help the Madrigals in their time of need.

Alma Madrigal walking

Alma Madrigal develops a quiet pride in her family being the sustaining force of their village. But when her family loses their home and their gifts, the villagers come to their aid — showing her that they can reciprocate support.

During this pandemic and the social isolation that comes with it, it has become very easy to just focus on you own family and forget the outside world. You end up feeling that calling on others for help is not an option. When really, it should be more of an option. Because now is the time that we really need each other.

Ordinary Can Be Extraordinary

Mirabel is an incredibly ordinary main character. Not only does she not have any unique magical powers like the rest of her family — but she tends to be a bit awkward and lacking in confidence. At first, I found it hard to watch her serve as a bit of a doormat to the rest of her family. But when watching again, it was clear that Mirabel was the most observant and mindful of the Madrigals. She was relatable not only to the audience – but to the rest of the villagers as well.

Again, I haven’t seen every Disney movie ever made — but it was great to see a main character that was just an average teenager whose superpower was just being kind.

It is so nice to start off 2022 with such a great animated family film. Maybe one day they’ll make one about Caribbean people ๐Ÿ™‚