“My kingdom for a villain in a new animated movie,” tweeted my friend, colleague, and former podcast co-host Josh Spiegel recently, obliquely but clearly inspired by a recent viewing of Disney’s new animated feature. Encanto. And as for my buddy, while I understand where he’s coming from, I don’t think the lack of villains is exactly the issue.
It’s true, as Spiegel notes, that for several years now, animated stories have moved away from classic Disney-style villains like Scar, Jafar, and Cruella de Vil. Instead, these stories found their conflicts in relational tensions, usually family relational tensions: Frozen, Moana, Forward, coconut, The Croods and many others. Many of these stories worked emotionally, and theoretically they allow for more nuance than a tale built around the machinations of a mustache-twirling villain. Yet as a new Walt Disney Animation movie Encanto shows, even when it’s possible to find a slight variation on the theme, it begins to wear down enough that the emotional payoff falls a little short.
The premise involves a hidden village in Colombia, where the refugee matriarch of the Madrigal family, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero) has constructed a kind of utopia through a magic candle. Later generations in the family manifested various special abilities – super-strength, shape-shifting, etc. – with the notable exception of the young Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). Trying to find her place in the family despite being “normal”, Mirabel instead discovers that she might actually be actively threatening the family, based on a prophecy that links her to the potential destruction of the magic candle.
Like most recent Disney animated features, Encanto gets off to a flying start with the first number of the production which features, in this case “The Family Madrigal” by Mirabel. This is just the first of many tunes written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, filled with the composer’s catchy tunes and fast-paced lyrics. Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard create a visual landscape in the sentient Madrigal home they call “Casita” almost as boldly colored as their zootopia, with the various character “gifts” also providing plenty of entertaining character animation possibilities. All the artistic pieces are in place, just waiting for the story to unfold.
And it certainly does, sometimes. There is still powerful material to be found in the idea of feeling out of place in one’s own family, perhaps even more so in the United States after a few years of relations strained by ideological schisms. Encanto delivers some heartbreaking scenes highlighting how painful it is to be estranged from those who are supposed to love you the most, including the fate of Mirabel’s outcast uncle, Bruno (John Leguizamo).
The problem is that much of this material looks like a hundred other animated features. In a way, a lot of stories like Encanto are just evolutions of the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” plot, centering on black sheep outcasts who come to realize that what makes them weird is also what makes them special, or necessary, or maybe just not as weird as they initially thought. Beatriz’s vocal performance is solid, conveying the tension of someone desperately trying to be the person he knows his family wants him to be, but there’s no doubt that everything will ultimately be resolved in a hug. and a sense of mutual understanding – reassuring, perhaps, to the youngsters in the audience, but also far too optimistic given the way such conflicts often persist.
It is true that Encanto gives this narrative a unique twist by focusing on the immigrant experience and the pressure felt by second and third generation immigrants to earn the blessings offered to them through the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. There’s a welcome twist to the formula in the songs given to Mirabel’s two sisters, in which they reveal how they too have been affected by family expectations, despite the kind of magical abilities Mirabel yearns for; even the “good children” of such a family cannot escape the sense of obligation. Making room for more diverse voices in feature animation is a good thing. All we can hope for at this point is that these voices, wherever they come from, don’t keep telling variations on the same story.