Disney’s Encanto isn’t just about representation — it’s an act of defiance

Image: Walt Disney Animation
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If the questions I repeatedly answered on first dates while living in Los Angeles were any indication, Americans tend to think of Colombia as a violent, drug-ridden failed state, half-slum and half-jungle, which also happens to be the source of their coffee and Sofía Vergara. But who can blame them? They mostly learned about Colombia from movies and television, and there isn’t much room for nuance in the exoticism of 1984’s Romancing the Stone, the cartel violence of Netflix’s Narcos series, or Gloria’s humorous otherness in ABC’s sitcom Modern Family.

So when Disney announced Encanto, a new animated feature that takes place in my home country of Colombia, it was admittedly exciting and validating.

This excitement had its caveats. Disney has a complicated history of depicting non-European cultures. Even beyond the clear cases of “This film was made in a different era,” such as the portrayal of Native-Americans in 1953’s Peter Pan or the softened racism of 1995’s Pocahontas, Disney creators still struggle with clichéd depictions of people of color, which understandably come under endless scrutiny in today’s more race-conscious environment.

Disney’s first Black protagonist, The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana, was introduced in 2009. While she herself has become a popular figure, her movie took immediate flak for its handling of race. A few years later, Moana was generally well-received, but suffered its own criticisms from Pacific Islander communities. Still, it marked a clear turning point in the way the studio handled its non-white characters and settings. Moana found its heart in the amalgam of cultures it was portraying. Its nods to Polynesian culture aren’t just set-dressing, they’re key components of her story and its themes.

Enter Encanto, which isn’t just set in a pastiche of similar cultures, like Disney’s Latine-inspired show Elena of Avalor. Encanto writer-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro Smith wanted to explicitly set their story in the very real country of Colombia. Their company’s recent track record of representation was certainly a good sign, but Hollywood’s history of portraying Colombia was reason enough for doubts. These concerns all found a place amid the collective Colombian excitement as Encanto’s opening night approached, but for me, at least, they disappeared a few minutes into the movie’s prologue. Once we learn that the central family, the Madrigals, like millions of real Colombians, have been displaced from their home by that abstract, omnipresent force we tend to simply call The Violence, it seemed evident that Bush, Howard, and Smith weren’t just coming from a place of understanding, it was also a place of love.

Image: Walt Disney Animation

Encanto tells the story of Mirabel Madrigal, who was born into a magical family where everyone has a special gift except her. One of her sisters is super-strong, another can produce flowers out of nowhere, her mom can cure any ailment with her food, and so forth. But Mirabel was never given a special gift, and her lack of powers is a regular source of tension between her and her Abuela.

These gifts aren’t innate. They are given to the family by a magical candle the Madrigals call “our miracle,” a force that saved Abuela and her three kids when she was young when they were forced to flee their hometown. As The Violence caught up with them, killing their Abuelo, the candle gave the surviving Madrigals a home: a magical house that became a source of refuge, comfort, and the subsequent generations’ special gifts.

The movie follows Mirabel as she sees that the house, their Casita, is starting to crack at the foundations, which her Abuela adamantly denies in an effort to maintain order. It’s up to Mirabel, the least special Madrigal, to find out what’s endangering their miracle and to protect the home that has protected her family all these years.

That quest to save her beloved house makes Encanto not just a story set in Colombia, but about Colombia as well. There’s nothing more Colombian than the desire to find a home in an inherently broken country.

Colombia’s problems are so intrinsic that being aware of them from birth almost seems necessary to feel Colombian at all. The genocidal conquest by Spain, as well as the subsequent decade-long independence process, set the stage for a very messy 200 years of history. Nine civil wars between liberals and conservatives during the 19th century resulted in an unsolvable national schism where the only overlap between the two sides was the exploitation and dismissal of a mostly racialized rural underclass. Class tensions steadily grew until the global advent of Communism gave birth to leftist guerrilla warfare, spawning fascist militias across the country in response. In this armed conflict, both sides eventually gave up ideology in favor of the blood-stained profits of drug trafficking.

This is a very brief and even generous summary of our national history, but it’s still more detailed than the image the First World tends to have of us. It makes sense, though, that as this violent environment became pervasive, most of the media made about us focused solely on that. The Violence, after all, stains almost every Colombian family. This focus on the country’s tensions happens in Colombian-made media too, as exemplified by the “narco-novelas” that clutter our networks. We have come to believe that this is all we get: an echo chamber of drugs, massacres, kidnappings, indifferent politicians, and a population that lacks memory, but still bears its baggage.

The Colombian Cultural Trust — a collection of consultants from a wide variety of fields, brought in to ensure the film’s authenticity — may have spoken to the writer-directors about this problem. Disney’s movie about our country couldn’t overtly include our violent past and present. But at some point, they decided not to ignore it, either. Disney’s Colombian movie centers on finding a place free of that innate suffering: a place its people can safely call home.

Image: Walt Disney Animation

So how wonderful, really, that we get to indulge in the fun, the color, the joy of Encanto when so much of the media about ourselves is focused on these vicious cycles of violence that we’re trapped in. What a miracle that we still, after all this time, have such beautiful things for Disney to portray, from unique musical stylings to delicious food and a rich storytelling tradition. Just as the Madrigals discovered, it’s a miracle that we can still share these gifts at all.

“Representation matters” has become a cliché, especially since representation only superficially addresses the larger cultural problems of Hollywood media. However, there’s no denying that there is power in seeing your own world elevated to the ranks of iconic fairytales and animated blockbusters.

The Cultural Trust helped Encanto leave behind caricature and stereotypes to create something that rings true to its subjects. This approach, first implemented with the Oceanic Story Trust in the production of Moana, is proving to be a step in the right direction for Disney when it comes to telling stories outside of the European bubble.

Is this the product of a multi-billion-dollar corporation that’s coming to understand what good business it is to appeal to increasingly diverse markets? Of course, but that doesn’t prevent the smaller players within this system from approaching a personal project with love. They set out to create something that would resonate with people around the world — but also specifically with Colombians, knowing that we don’t always get to feel that way. And if initial reactions here in Colombia are any indication, the film is resonating. Not because of cynical corporate decisions, but because the artists behind the movie cared.

But this is about a lot more than just representation. The happiness portrayed in Encanto isn’t just escapism, it’s defiance. It’s about challenging that notion that we Colombians have to be miserable forever.

After arguing throughout the whole movie about how to save the house and who’s to blame for its impending destruction, the Madrigals ultimately have to accept that their miracle wasn’t the magical house, or their magical gifts. In fact, the miracle is that after all these years, the family has somehow figured out how to thrive in the face of tragedy. The magic gave them their Casita, sure, but they were the ones to create love, beauty, and community in it. A broken history got them there, but it’s a miracle that they’re still there regardless. And at the end of the day, that’s worth a lot.

In the process of deeply rooting the film in Colombian culture, whether through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s well-researched music that spans all sorts of regional genres or the unique cast of characters meant to encompass a weird and disparate country, Encanto celebrates the diversity of Colombia, the happiness to be found in its art, its nature, its heritage, and, more than anything, its people.

Perhaps the most telling detail is the deliberate choice to not give The Violence a face. If the brief history lesson above is any indication, this force that displaced the Madrigals could have been anything from militias to warlords. Sure, Disney was probably avoiding details because they’d be too graphic or complicated for young viewers (or, more cynically, because they might be taken as a political statement). But I choose to see it differently.

In Encanto, unlike all other American depictions of Colombia, there’s no room for The Violence or its perpetrators. The focus is on the survivors. It’s about the miracle of thriving when you seem almost cosmically predisposed to suffer ad infinitum. Because that’s what Colombia is: a country of people trying their best to thrive in spite of themselves.

We’re a country of Mirabels, all struggling to figure out how to fix these evils that seem like our birthright. Like Mirabel’s prognosticating Uncle Bruno, we’re overwhelmed with an undeniably dire future. Like Abuela, we sometimes fight to pretend these threats aren’t there, because we can’t bear the thought of facing them again. Like the Madrigals, we’re each trying to deal with all this alone — and realizing, perhaps through projects like Encanto, that maybe we don’t have to.

Encanto is in theaters and now streaming on Disney Plus.

Movies, reconsidered

Deep dives 10
The modern lens 9
Hot takes 13

Comments

The inclusion of forced displacement and internal conflict was a shock to me and mine when we first saw it. After we got over the shock, our initial reaction was to assume that the movie was referring to La Violencia, but the level of technological advancement present in the movie led us to believe that the movie took place during the Thousand Days’ War. Finally, we concluded that the question is irrelevant, as internal strife is an indelible part of the Colombian experience and the unnamed conflict in the movie is a synthesis of all our conflicts, in the same way that the Encanto is a synthesis of all Colombia.

That aside, Encanto (the movie) is astonishingly well researched. I don’t know what the producers got up to during their research trip to Colombia (fun fact: my brother ran into Lin Manuel Miranda at the Gold Museum and I still resent him for it), but it was time well spent. The only inaccuracies are the line about how coffee is for grownups (most Colombians start drinking the stuff at, like, age five) and the main character’s name: my friends and I still refer to her as Maribel, which is an actual Colombian-sounding name, and not Mirabel, which just sounds odd.

It’s an incredibly powerful movie. The themes around family roles and the insistence that the welfare of The Family come before any (or at the expense of) personal endeavors hit me hard as a very Anglo guy in my late 30’s. I’m very happy to hear that the cultural aspects of the film are so well done. Say what you want about Disney, but they do hit the mark more often than not.

To me those themes took a backseat to this family flaunting then desperately worried about their magical mansion and super powers. Oh must be tough lol, but I get what you mean.

Luisa’s song though was a stand out, in beat and message lol, towards that theme. But I felt they just sort of like hand waved her anxiety at the end. Especially compared to like Isabela who had a whole arc.

Fascinating article.

Really loved the movie, but the one part that kinda came out of nowhere was the "raiding party". Mainly cause the hour before it had almost none of that stuff and it felt weird getting pulled into "reality" like that coming from a place of magic and fairytale. Did like it had zero "bad guys" overall though.

it felt weird getting pulled into "reality" like that coming from a place of magic and fairytale

The Colombian experience in a nutshell. The "raiding party" (which, to be frank, was probably less of a raiding party and more of a massacring party) is part of what captures the essence of Colombia. A lot of the time you don’t think about the violence and the conflict, but it’s always there, ready to pounce when you least expect it. Omitting it would do the movie a disservice.

Oh I wasn’t saying omitting it was the answer, but as an outsider, it was a sudden harsh but also incomprehensible bit of reality in an all around enclosed sealed of fairy tale world. I don’t think my kids got it tbh, it was too fast, vague and quick, and why it happened or who was just left out in the blue. Of course we’re missing the background here being being from Europe.

By the end i was just still frustrated that the cause for Mirabel to miss out on a gift as a child was never explained! Whatever made that decision didn’t seem to be the same intelligence behind the casita.. so what made that decision and what was it based on?!

Seemed to me the powers were rather pointless and a metaphor in general, the strong girl was handy but what the flowers, shapeshifting, talking to animals and the super hearing actually added was debatable. None of it had much value (which might have been the point too, they reflected characters but also showed having a boon doesn’t make you special or better than others in general)

My opinion after seeing it was her power was to rebuild and unite, the door she created in the end basically said the power she had was of family/union or something like that, but she needed everyone for that, and before everyone was doing it’s own thing while not really talking much about how they really felt

Maybe I’m mistaken but I believe her abuela didn’t have a "power" either, created the Encanto, kept the family together and lit the candle that gave the powers to the family. (Then in general lost her way)

So my take away was that Mirabel has the same power as her grandma, to unite her family and give them a home… or whatever.

Like she’s the new matron of the family, which is why Bruno’s visions were about her reconciling relationships and the house’s stability was directly tied to their closeness.

I don’t think you need a spoiler for that. It’s the basic premise of the movie that’s in all the trailers.

The main threat in the movie was the grandmother losing sight of what was important (valuing the family members as people vs. how useful their powers are), so Mirabel not getting powers was a way to force the grandmother to confront her own failings.

In the end the powers are metaphorical and unimportant. Mirabel isn’t any less special for not having a power than you are less special than anyone else who might be better than you at something.

My theory was that she was meant to inherit her grandmother’s gift, which was the casita. However, the grandmother’s behavior leading up to the ceremony stopped that from happening. Once the doorknob was placed on the rebuilt house, the gift was transferred.

This is a really fascinating theory, and I’m here for it!

These comments are pretty fair, but i can’t agree that her power was to ‘unite’ or ‘build the family’ etc, because if it were a legit ‘gift’ then she would have received a magical room and door visually themed to that concept, which she didn’t. Plus understanding that is an unreasonable ask for a child or anyone, since it can’t be even theorised until she is older and had time to actually do those things — in the moment it’s undeniably just a cruel and obvious lack of a gift, even teasing it with the door which then disappears in her hands! That had me questioning which cruel intelligence would put that on a kid to figure out — but more likely, and based on her lack of a room, she legit just never got a gift!

Even the ending where the casita is like her ‘room’ with the magical new door stuff… Like, does she sleep in the living room now? And why was she the only one required to earn whatever that magical reveal was (still not a supernatural ‘gift’)?

I liked the movie but it’s really frustrating somehow, for them to sing and act like everything is resolved… What was that malicious intelligence that chose not to give her a gift?! Haha

I don’t think it’s that something "chose not to give her a gift." I think she didn’t need a gift to be all that she could be. Everyone else needed a gift to stand out or be helpful: Mirabel didn’t need that because she, without a gift, already gave so much. A gift wasn’t withheld: it wasn’t needed.

Also: I think they did a good job of showing that every single gift was also a curse. Some were more obvious than others but the point is that their gifts were either something that made their personal lives harder – like the aunt who had Storm’s power or Bruno – or they were so useful that they couldn’t live their own lives past the responsibility of having such a powerful gift – like the two older sisters. Mirabel was free of both the power and the burden.

I think it’s surprising not a single word was said about how this movie is basically "100 Years of Solitude But Make it Disney". Most of the foundation for the setting, huge family, huge house, magic and a history with violence and conflict around a changing country influenced by so many different foreign and internal forces comes from that book.

That was the first thing I thought of when I heard about the film.

The other thing it reminded me of was What Remains of Edith Finch.

Defiance? It was made by one of the most homogenized corporate conglomerates in the world.

Congrats on obstinately refusing to see the point.

So once creators start working for a company they lose the right to say something meaningful?

I take your main point and don’t really disagree, while acknowledging that you’re being "that guy" and ignoring the point of a heartfelt piece.

No harm in stating the obvious though, I guess.

I really wanted to like this movie more than I did, but the whole thing felt rushed. I wish it had been 30-40 minutes longer and we could have seen more of the family interacting with each other because the resolutions of the emotional conflicts didn’t feel earned.

The sister, the grandmother, and Bruno (don’t get me started on Bruno, we don’t talk about Bruno) all had such pat resolutions of their conflicts and it was just… frustrating. I get that Disney is apparently trying out a "villain free story" but some emotional wounds and traumas – especially those inflicted by family members over a long period of time, can’t just be fixed by an "I’m sorry, I was wrong (now lets go build a house)." If the movie had been longer and shown a clear "after" and what healthier interactions between these characters looked like, instead of a montage, THAT would have been great.

The last thing we want is a movie to be padded longer, it ended on a perfect timing. And you know movies have time limits to adhere to, especially for a family/kids movie you don’t want that to drag on or people will lose attention especially kids; I guarantee you there are plenty of material they had to cut just like anything else. As to your other criticism, the response is this is a kids/family animated movie, we do not need any more big forgiveness moments, just get to the point; we can fill in the rest that they must be a time they will do this later with imagination. Leave it as it is, the movie is perfect!

Hard disagree, because without fleshing out the message can easily become "as long as your family members say ‘sorry’ you can/should forgive them for ANYTHING" and that’s toxic as all hell.

What did Abuela do that was intentionally abusive to her family?

People that call everything toxic seem to only ever be focused on the fact that disfunction exists, not why it exists or how problems can be resolved.

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