According to Collins Spanish Dictionary, the word “encanto” has multiple meanings. Indeed, it can mean “spell”, but also “charming” or “enchanting”. It is also a term of endearment similar to “honey” or “darling”.
Walt Disney Animation Studios chose the very word Encanto as the title for its 60th movie directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard (and co-directed by Charise Castro Smith). And just like the word, the movie has more meaning than it might seem at first.
The Madrigal family
Encanto tells the story of the extraordinary Madrigal family who lives in a magical house, the “Casita”, in an evocative village located in the mountains of Colombia. This is thanks to an “encanto” received by the matriarch of the family, Abuela Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero), that also gifted a magical talent to each newborn of the family from the age of five. These magical powers include Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) super strength; Isabela’s (Diane Guerrero) ability to bloom flowers; Camilo’s (Rhenzy Feliz) shapeshifting; or Julieta’s (Angie Cepeda) power to heal people with the food she cooks. However, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, actress in Brooklyn Nine-Nine), unlike her family, never receives her gift. Therefore, she sees herself as the outsider of the family – sharing this status with her long-vanished uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) – and even her grandmother Alma treats her as such.
It will take a disaster – the magic faltering and the house falling apart – to show Mirabel her true gift and to make Abuela Alma realize all the hurt her expectations have done to the Madrigal family.
South American Culture in Encanto
Colombia in Encanto feels real in many ways. From the bright colors to the typical food; from the characters’ design to their costumes to the settings. The movie shows plenty of research and care. An especially attentive eye was given to the music. Singer-songwriter, actor, and director Lin-Manuel Miranda worked on both Encanto‘s songs and story. Miranda – who in 2021 also worked on Vivo, the film adaptation of his Broadway musical In The Heights, and made his directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom! – expressed his long research into Colombian music for the movie. For example, for the song What Else Can I Do he drew much inspiration from the Rock en español movement of the 1990s. What’s more, Encanto‘s songs also feature famous Colombian performers, such as Carlos Vives and Sebastián Yatra.
In particular, Yatra’s song Dos Oruguitas, talks about one of Encanto‘s key points: the need for people to change to survive. The metaphor unfolds through the journey of two caterpillars who will turn into butterflies. Yellow butterflies are featured throughout the movie. Some see them as a reference to famous Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez’s influence shows up in the Madrigal family’s story as well: in the centrality of the house and in the magic realism that recalls One Hundred Years of Solitude. Magic realism itself is a literary genre that has its roots in South America. And Encanto seems to wink in that direction with the surrealism of its magic.
Disney and the weight of family expectations
The Madrigals struggle starts with a war. Thought to be The War of a Thousand Days, a civil war that shook Colombia from 1899 to 1903. Alma flees with her husband and their three newborn children in search of safety. She loses her husband. Yet, in this moment of sorrow and grief, she receives a gift: the candle that sparks magic. From then on, her sole purpose will be to keep her family stable and safe, as she has always wanted. But just like in real families, this does not work out as planned.
At first, Mirabel seems to be the only one who suffers from her lack of magical talent. However, abuela‘s expectations weigh on the entire family. Through heartfelt conversations, Mirabel finds out that Luisa feels pressure to be “the strong one”. She is not allowed to focus on her own needs. Isabela also struggles with having to be “the perfect one”. She feels she is not allowed to make mistakes. Unknowingly, their grandmother has saddled her family with roles that did not suit them, making them unhappy.
The theme of parental expectations in Disney is a recurring one. For example, in Tangled (2010) Mother Gothel demands (and eventually forces) Rapunzel to live her entire life locked in her room. Even in Mulan (1998), the protagonist is expected to be a perfect housewife. And the same thing happens to Jasmine in Aladdin (1992).
The villain comes from the inside
At first, uncle Bruno seems to be the story’s villain. No one is allowed to talk about him. He is known only as a creepy “seven-foot-tall” person with the gift of seeing the future. However, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that he is yet another victim. Just like Mirabel, he was the “identified patient”; the scapegoat for all of the family’s problems.
Bruno is a beloved character among Encanto fans. This helped make his theme song, We Don’t Talk About Bruno, a worldwide hit. An extra element is the originality of the melody. Indeed, in this song, the rhythm changes smoothly and frequently. It features also syncopation: an off-beat rhythm that makes the song even more interesting.
However, it would not be fair to pinpoint Alma as the villain of the story either. As Mirabel herself realizes, Alma is actually a traumatized war victim who is just afraid of losing everything once again. She passes down her trauma to future generations of the Madrigals, spreading the effects of the war even further. And it is Mirabel’s generation that needs to understand how things have changed and how the family can improve in order to get rid of the trauma.
Encanto shows how Disney Animation (and Pixar) are changing their perspective on villains. Indeed, other animated movies such as Soul and Inside Out do not feature a villain at all. Instead, they feature characters who need to solve issues within themselves. An intriguing take on the idea that everyone can be their villains and heroes.
At the 79th Golden Globe Awards, Encanto won Best Animated Feature Film. While at the upcoming 94th Academy Awards, it earned three nominations: Best Animated Feature; Best Original Score; and Best Original Song for Dos Oruguitas.