“There is evidently much more to be done to rewrite rigid casting”: a reflection on Disney’s ‘Encanto’

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Disney’s 60th release has charmed the hearts of audiences across the globe. Encanto is in many ways a classic Disney animation, designed to capture young minds with melody and magic. There is, however, something else going on here too, and it seems possible that the film’s impact could exceed that of its many successful predecessors. At its core, Encanto puts forth a powerful message about representation.  

Encanto tells the story of the magical “Family Madrigal”, across its multiple generations. The magic begins when the family’s matriarch, Abuela, having lost her husband while fleeing their home from conflict, is blessed with an enchanted candle. This provides the community with a secure oasis and, as each member of the Madrigal family comes of age, it bestows upon them a certain gift.  Eternally grateful for their miracle, the Madrigals use their gifts to serve their community.  The film’s heroine, Mirabel, sits slightly on the margins as the only family member not to receive one.

Encanto represents an explosion of Colombian culture.  Although an animation, its setting is the scenic Cocora Valley and is infused with local beats, animals and colours. The storyline, in which conspicuous magic is treated as unremarkable within its setting, places the film loosely into the genre of magic realism — a genre born out of Colombia. Magic realism has powerfully influenced Latin American literature and art, and Encanto is thus representative of these cultures.

The storyline also hints at the experiences of Latin American immigrants in the United States

The film’s focus is on the complexities of a multi-generational Colombian family. Its vitality, thanks largely to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical genius, reflects the richness of a family that carries their inherited experiences through the generations. Hardship has pushed them to work tirelessly in order to maintain the gains for which their forbearers fought.  

However, the growing pressure this heritage brings gradually breaks through the surface. Cracks within the family structure start to appear and, suddenly, this once strongly cemented system risks crumbling around them, with their candle’s flame flickering precariously in the background.

Encanto achieves a depth of experience and may mark a turning point for mainstream media. It combines warm escapism with realistic aspects of Colombian culture. The storyline also hints at the experiences of Latin American immigrants in the United States.  Throughout the film, the theme of honouring one’s roots whilst adapting and moving forward into the future is ever-present. The intermixing of American with Colombian accents, and the fluid integration of Spanish phrases within the English sentences, beautifully reflect a marriage of cultures in the past, present, and future.

Another striking aspect of Encanto, and a reason for it sparking the question of representation, is the physical appearance of its characters. Among the characters as a whole, we see a diverse range of skin tones and body types which creates an inclusive and dynamic visual experience.  

Encanto’s heroine, Mirabel, breaks the “thin”, white Disney princess mould. She is clumsy and endearing with short curly hair, large green glasses, a wide nose, and a sprinkling of freckles.  

It represents a form of validation, education and classic entertainment

The presentation of Luisa, the middle of the three sisters, has gained even more notable recognition. While the eldest sister is defined by beauty and grace, Luisa is gifted with super strength. As such, she has a broad, muscular build – never before seen on a female Disney character. The reaction of young girls has been heartening, with Luisa’s merchandise outselling that of Isabela. Providing young girls with role models who depart from society’s “thin” ideal and promote other desirable characteristics, such as strength, is a significant step in the right direction.  

Stories from different cultures with characters who diverge from so-called ‘European beauty standards’ have always been important and valuable. Encanto’s success among audiences reflects this. It also reflects, however, a willingness from Disney to develop its corporation and take seriously the cultural power it holds.

The ultimate power of a film like Encanto is that it is at once culturally specific and universal. It clearly honours the specificity of Colombian culture, and perhaps Latin American culture more broadly. Simultaneously, however, it inter-weaves themes common to all of us growing up in 21st century society, such as pressure to live up to expectations from both internal and external forces. It represents, therefore, a form of validation, education, and classic entertainment, which can and should appeal to each of us for various reasons.

Encanto’s success points to the potential of more consistent exposure to different cultures and diverse physical forms within influential media. If Disney’s lead is followed, we may see the transformation of such representation from a happy exception to an absolute expectation within film and television. There is evidently much more to be done to rewrite rigid casting and retrograde storylines. However, for now at least, the flame lit by Encanto casts an optimistic light on the future of representation in media.

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