The new Disney animated movie charms with its lush Colombian scenery, infectious cumbia beats, and positive message about community.
When Pixar’s The Incredibles came out in 2004, one of its central plot points revolved around one of the bedrock principles of super-heroism, that those with special gifts should never hide them or abuse them for personal gain, but instead put them to use for the good of all. It’s a pretty good principle. However, it does beg the question, what if everyone around you is using their special gifts the way they should, but you yourself don’t have any to contribute? That’s the dilemma faced by the main character in Disney’s latest animated feature, Encanto.
The story begins at an unspecified time during one of Colombia’s turn-of-the-20th-century civil wars, when a young Alma Madrigal, her family, and the rest of her village are being pursued by attackers into the mountains. When Alma’s husband is struck down, Alma calls out in anguish, at which point the Madrigal family heirloom candle bursts forth with magical energy.
Three things come from this Miracle, as the townsfolk will come to refer to it. A natural barrier immediately builds itself to protect everyone from further attack, a living sentient house named Casita appears for Alma’s remaining family to move into, and each of Alma’s children and subsequent grandchildren is bestowed a unique special gift to be used to serve the new village. Alma’s daughter Julieta, for example, can heal with her cooking, while her granddaughter Luisa has Herculean strength. So it goes for each child in the Madrigal bloodline … at least until Mirabel comes along.
When Mirabel comes of age to receive a super-power of her own, The Miracle grants her none. This comes as a great shock to the now aged Alma, and she begins to slowly push Mirabel away in favor of her empowered siblings. For her part, Mirabel puts on a glad-face and does her utmost to still serve the village over the next few years, but inwardly she stings at the slight and wonders why she can’t be special like the rest of her family. However, despite these feelings, when the powers bestowed upon Casita and the Madrigal family by The Miracle begin to mysteriously wane, Mirabel takes it upon herself to discover the cause. Unfortunately, after unearthing a long-buried family secret, Mirabel begins to worry she herself may the problem.
Without a princess in sight, Encanto is a slight change of pace from recent Disney Animation Studios fare. The setting is a new one for the company, and a welcome one at that, with capybaras and tapirs crowding the vibrant Colombian scenery. Most obvious are the film’s more modern musical numbers, penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. Though not quite up to that show’s standards, his patented mix of Broadway, Latino pop, and R&B is still on full display. Alas, so is his penchant for lightning-paced lyrics, so some viewers may be left wondering what words they just heard even as they continue to tap their toes to the infectious cumbia beats.
Also of interest is the way The Miracle is presented in the story. Its source is never revealed. Instead, in keeping with Latin America’s famed affinity for magical realism, the villagers nonchalantly accept the goings-on as simply part of the natural order of things. Luisa has super strength? Fine, then let her carry all the donkeys to the stables at the end of the day. For any parents concerned this may be a slight lean into Columbia’s pre-Christian paganism, it’s worth noting the recurring background character of the village’s Catholic priest also seems perfectly at ease with it all as he presides over weddings and cares for his church building. So, take that for what it’s worth.
Actually, the final take-home message of the movie is surprisingly biblical. When all is said and done, everyone in the village comes to the realization that the gifted and non-gifted both have their places, and communities need both in order to thrive. It would not at all have been out of place to have the village priest step up and deliver a homily on St. Paul’s exhortations on the various gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians, how some members get them and some don’t, but all members are still necessary for the continued health of the body that is the Church. Not that Disney would ever do something like that, of course, because they still want to sell as many tickets in non-Christian countries as possible, but they could have, and it would have worked. Still, even as it is, Encanto is an enjoyable romp through Colombian culture with a slightly more substantive message than the standard “just be yourself” fluff most animated features dole out these days.