Decoding Encanto


Thibault Penin for Unsplash

Encanto streaming on Disney Plus.

Malik Abdus-Sabur, Staff Writer

I’ve been disappointed with Disney.

This is not to say that they have fallen into irrelevance and have lost all of their magic that they previously had back in their Golden Age, also known as the Disney Renaissance, the time from 1989 to 1999 when they released some of the most classic and beloved animated films to ever be put on the wide screen: Mulan, Aladdin, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and more. However, it is undeniable that once they entered the 2000s, they started to slip. Trying out new methods of storytelling to engage an audience of both the young and old, recent Disney movies have lacked the heart, soul, and magic of the classics, feeling more like products that need to be put out in order to make a million dollars in the Box Office. 

Encanto, which premiered late last year, is different. The overall story of Encanto and how it unfolds is rather refreshing and unique for an animated feature, and I’m here to explain why. Minor spoilers ahead.

After the tragic and heartbreaking murder of her husband, Abuela Alma Madrigal was given a miracle in the darkest time of her life: a magical house or “casita” that blessed her three children with magical gifts. Fifty years later, Mirabel Madrigal, Abuela’s granddaughter and the only child in the family without a gift, is tasked with saving the magic which is in danger of disappearing forever. Along the way, she learns about the problems and dilemmas her family has kept hidden. 

To be honest, I didn’t have very high expectations of this movie, if any at all. However, I was very surprised by how the movie came out. Disney has been known for decades as being the king of Western animation, with a vast majority of their movies (both the great and mediocre) have been consistently stunning and gorgeous, and Encanto is no exception to this. 

 This film was directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard, who previously collaborated on Zootopia. The musical numbers of Encanto are absolutely amazing, as expected of the popular and talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for composing and starring in Broadway’s Hamilton. All the songs in the movie display what Lin can do when given full freedom to show off by the directors, as opposed to previous projects, such as Moana, where his creativity was restricted. Miranda adapts different genres of music to fit the tone and feel of each character. There’s smart foreshadowing and references littered across each song. And finally, there’s a constant stream of rap.

Mirabel Madrigal feels like a much more refreshing protagonist than most other Disney princesses, even if she isn’t technically royalty. The movie is all about her and her family. Not even a prince coming to save the day. Mirabel grows from a powerless, helpless girl to an empowered woman. All of this is to prove that despite her lack of magical powers, she is special in the family. 

The question that is raised through many songs in the film is if the rest of the family was happy about being special. One major character is Mirabel’s sister, Luisa, who has been gifted with super strength. Despite Luisa’s gentle-giant nature, we learn that while she is extremely strong and buff; she is full of insecurities and vulnerability. She feels that she needs to prove she’s worthwhile to have in the family by constantly helping everyone out, making everyone more dependent on her. Luisa opening up about these things after holding them in for years makes her song, “Surface Pressure” one of the most emotional in the movie. 

Mirabel’s other sister, Isabela, has her own song, “What Else Can I Do?” that is her letting go (see what I did there?) of the perfect image her family and the town has bestowed upon her in order to just be herself. Her character acts as a deconstruction of the proper lady trope we see so much in fiction and even in Disney with some examples being Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Queen Elinor from Brave.  Isabela is sick of all that and wants to express herself honestly. And finally, there’s Abuela, who’s the most important character of the movie before Mirabel.

The whole movie by now has acted as an allegory for placing the title of ‘special’ upon gifted children, with the message being that you’re special just the way you are. A lot of people probably saw Abuela as the main antagonist of the movie because of her contrarian attitude towards Mirabel. Abuela is a woman who is traumatized and heartbroken by the past, as it is revealed in the song “Dos Oruguitas.” As a result of her experiences, Abuela is determined to never lose her family or the miracle like the way she lost her husband. However, it is through realizing that the blessing they gained a long time ago is just that – a blessing – that the Madrigal family can move forward.

In conclusion, Encanto is a charming, heartwarming, and inspiring film. It sends a very nuanced and well-developed theme and message on family and gifted children. And most of all, it’s a step in the right direction for Disney.