Disney shifts from formula in “Encanto”

Disney’s latest animated film, “Encanto”, uses its medium to its advantage more than the average CGI release. It takes place in Colombia and focuses on the Madrigal family. 

The Madrigal family lives in a sentient magical house, and each member of the family is given a supernatural gift at the age of five. At least, everyone in the family except for Mirabel.

Though this film certainly has many of the clichés associated with its genre, its story has some key things that stand out from many movies of its kind. The first thing that is apparent is much of the film takes place in one building- the Madrigal house. Nearly every Disney Animation film insists on being a large-scale quest or a journey of some kind, wandering into many different locations. Such stories become increasingly repetitive and stale, especially when they share other tropes. This film, however, uses its smaller setting to its advantage. Rather than going out for an adventure, the protagonist, Mirabela Madrigal, discovers new things within the house her family has lived in for generations. The house is a character in the film and major plot points are delightfully tied to it. 

In the beginning, it is not evident in any way to other characters or often to Mirabel herself that she is the one who will have to propel the story forward. She is the only person in her family who is not special. This creates an interesting dynamic between her and her relatives.

The film’s effective use of mystery sets it apart from many animated Disney films. One relative is ostracized from the family and no one knows where he went. This mystery is presented as a constant backdrop for the story, unconsciously inviting the audience to engage with the story. The payoff of this happens in a very pleasing way, one which uses the small scale of the film as a major advantage in both somber and comedic contexts. 

Since “Encanto” is a musical, the soundtrack is a central element.  The entire film was composed by the same man who wrote the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and the film Moana, Lin Manuel Miranda. Each song adds to the plot and explores something interesting about the relationship between characters.

Even with these positive aspects, the film falls short in some ways. Especially in the beginning after the introduction of Mirabel, the film drags its feet quite a bit. It isn’t a revolutionary film in any way, as every subversion of expectations for an animated film is minor compared to the predictable turn of events in the finale. These by no means break the film, but it is worth mentioning when it is not at its best.

“Encanto” is one of Disney Animation’s most creative recent exploits. It uses its medium to its advantage in ways that subvert tropes common to its studio and its genre. I’m not certain if it was “magical”, but it was good.

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