Encanto (2021) – Review
(2.5 / 4)
Where Turning Red handles transgenerational trauma with nuance and respect, Encanto handles the topic in a naive and damaging context. The well-researched presentation of Colombian culture, history, and diversity is a great boon to Latino audiences; unfortunately, this is not enough to excuse Encanto‘s botched handling of abusive families.
Encanto handles its core theme in a fashion that is misguided at best and negligent at worst. Recent Disney and Pixar animations have the tendency to avert a traditional villain, making the conflict a misunderstanding or failure in communication. Turning Red played this well, because it presents the antagonist clearly as wrong and forces them to make serious amends and break the cycle.
Encanto in contrast teaches kids a whole plethora of rotten messages about how to handle abuse from an older relative. It teaches them that the abuser is justified because of their own trauma; worse, it teaches not only that you should forgive your abuser, but also that you must shoulder the burden of fixing your relationship with your abuser.
Pictured above is our protagonist, 15-year-old Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) of the Madrigal family. The Madrigal family matriarch is Mirabel’s abuela Alma Madrigal (Maria Cecilia Botero); fifty years prior in Colombia, she and her triplets escaped the Thousand Days’ War; while she lost her husband Pedro, she and her fellow refugees survived with the help of the “Miracle”.
This Miracle provided them a sentient Casita to live within, as well as unique magic powers (“Gifts”) for each of Alma’s children and grandchildren. Using their Gifts, they built a haven for the refugees in a hidden valley, the titular encanto.
When each of Alma’s descendants turns five, they get their own magic door in the house, as well as their Gift/power. Alma heavily pressures all of her descendants to use their powers tirelessly to protect and grow their hidden village. One of Alma’s triplets, Bruno (John Leguizamo), had the ability to see visions of the future; Bruno left the village when Mirabel was a child, and Alma had him unpersoned as a result.
But it would be fair to say Mirabel’s fate is almost worse. Mirabel does not have a room in the house, because when she turned five, she was the only Madrigal not to get a Gift. Despite a magical Casita that can reshape itself at will, Mirabel has to stay in the nursery for ten years. Her abuela Alma explicitly tells her the best way to help the family is to not be present; Mirabel is made to feel unwelcome at family events, and is excluded from the “family” photo.
When Mirabel sees physical cracks in the Casita forming, Alma gaslights her in front of the entire village despite knowing it is true herself. The rest of the Madrigal family stands by as this happens, despite multiple of them also knowing something is legitimately wrong with the Miracle. There is a brief highlight in the film when Alma tries to blame Mirabel for all their misfortune; Mirabel calls her out for her narcissism, and it’s a highly relatable moment, but unfortunately it is transitory.
There is no plot explanation for why Mirabel doesn’t have a gift. But the core plot problem is that the film asks the audience to forgive Alma; forgiveness just isn’t possible with the abuse she inflicts on her family. The ending is about as ridiculous as if Cinderella had ended with the evil stepmother going “Hey Cindy, I was not a good parent, we both made some mistakes, and I promise I’ll do better if you will come back and live with me rather than the Prince.” The absurdity of pretending Alma is anything other than a villain is ludicrous.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack left me with a sense of lacking; for all the hype surrounding We Don’t Talk About Bruno, it simply is not catchy to the same degree as Let it Go or previous Miranda work like How Far I’ll Go. Further, while songs in Hamilton and Moana move the plot forward, the opposite is true in Encanto. Characters in this film simply stop the entire plot to sing about their feelings, dragging the pace glacially. It is not an exaggeration to say this film would be preferable with all musical numbers cut.
To provide some genuine praise, the cultural representation in this film is excellent. I’m sincerely glad that Disney didn’t whitewash Colombia, including Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Colombian members of the Madrigal family. Large and small details like the Thousand Days’ War and characters pointing with their lips show that Encanto is a sincere portrait of Colombian culture. But while it succeeds in depthfully representing Colombia, Encanto unfortunately fails in handling the theme of intergenerational trauma responsibly.