Encanto: A New Take on a Familiar Lesson
Stories have been from the beginning of time, and in that time, basically every story that will be told has been told. But the beauty of a story is the different forms it can take, and Encanto is proof positive of that.
Encanto is a tale that follows Mirabel Madrigal and her magical family. Blessed by what their Abuela calls “a miracle”, every Madrigal has some kind of special power called “a gift”. Everyone except Maribel. However, the magic that has sustained the family through generations starts to wane and Mirabel notices this. When she brings it up, her concerns are brushed off as those of a girl feeling left out. In summary (because I’d rather not re-tell the movie here), the family learns what it is to be a family again, and the magic returns.
Mirabel is, by all accounts, the underachiever of the family. She’s the only one without any special gift. But she learns a lesson that everybody has probably heard and maybe even joked about. She is special in her own very special way. The trope is practically cliché-level, but at no point did the movie feel like one. This simple lesson which is what holds up the entire plot is interwoven through all the other things that this movie does well.
Encanto is unlike any other Disney animated movie in that it is family-focused. While Maribel is the “protagonist” and we follow her journey, the whole family acts as kind of the “main character” of this movie. Because of this, there is no “antagonist” as we’d normally think of these things in storytelling terms. The inciting action, and the source of all of the dramatic tension is the family. Most of the members of the family (mainly the grandkids) have been flattened into 2D caricatures of their gifts mainly in service of the family. The weight of losing one’s self in order to serve the family and the fear that you might not be good enough are exemplified by Luisa and Isabela (and their amazing songs). Abuela has to, and in fact does learn that the family is not “what they can do”, but who they are. They are the miracle. Not the gifts. This movie does a wonderful job of utilizing the cultural weight of the family and the community as a device not only to propel the story forward, but to deepen the understanding of the characters. Bruno, who is ostracized because of his gift, is thought to have left, but he because he loves his family, is still around. Living in the walls is the closest he can get to being with his family while sparing them the tragedy of dealing with him. And despite this, when he does come back, he is welcomed with love and more than a few hugs.
As always the music is a banger. Lin-Manuel Miranda is an actual genius. And because it’s a musical, the songs (and their attendant performances) are as much part of the story as the lines written in the screenplay.
I’ve said a lot about the characters and for good reason. They are just phenomenal. Nobody ever feels like a placeholder or an incomplete person. Even those who don’t get as much screen time still feel like they have a rich, fulfilling life that they lead. With ensemble movies like this, it’s hard to not pick a favorite character (mine’s Antonio), and in this movie it feels like you can’t make a wrong choice. They’re all great, and all for different reasons.
Encanto is another entry in the pantheon of (what I consider) classic Disney animated movies. But it got there in a markedly different way than any movie that came before it.