Walt Disney Animation Studios’ recent feature “Encanto” has received extensive praise for nearly every aspect of its creation; its music, animation, story, representation and themes have set it above Disney’s more recent and less-stellar releases like “Frozen II,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” But the film is not notable just for being good: it’s a uniquely realistic piece in Disney’s repertoire. While the studio’s best-known works have been overt fairytales, fantasies or other iterations of folklore, “Encanto” tells a deeply relatable story in a realistic setting. Even the less-realistic components of the film, its inclusion of magic—a hallmark of Disney films—does not spoil the realism; in fact, the magical element works with the realism to help achieve the film’s distinct identity as a piece of magic realism.
Magic realism, an underrepresented genre in popular culture, works for “Encanto” on multiple levels. Typical works of this genre are believable, detailed, set in the real world and feature some significant element of fantasy that serves to clarify or intensify the expression of its themes (those aren’t the only things the magic in this genre can accomplish, but they’re the most relevant regarding “Encanto”). The film is about a magical Colombian family blessed with a “miracle” that gives each member a unique “gift”—some supernatural power—at a young age; but the protagonist, Mirabel, receives no power and struggles to be of use to her family. She tries to save the magic when it begins fading for unclear reasons, and that uncertainty of cause is the source of much of the film’s conflict. The film features each characteristic of magic realism: it has conflicts focused on nuanced and genuine family issues, proud representations of its setting’s real-world culture and magic in the form of the Madrigal family’s collective “miracle.” This miracle both clarifies and intensifies the film’s themes, the two big jobs of magic in this genre. Finally, the magic realism genre is heavily associated with Latin-American literature and was, in fact, deeply influenced by the novel “Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude)” by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez—some have even suggested “Encanto” itself was directly inspired by the novel—which is all to say that the film’s representation of Colombian culture extends to its very genre.
While the magic in “Encanto” is obvious, the makeup of its realism is a bit more subtle. I have already referenced how its conflict and setting are steeped in real-world considerations, but they involve deeper levels of realism than a passing suggestion would convey. Indeed, labelling “Encanto” as “realistic” just for taking place in a real-world country would be like calling “Frozen” realistic because it’s technically set in Denmark. Where the two differ is in the representation of those settings. “Encanto” is filled to the brim with natural references to Colombia’s culture that make the audience extremely aware of its real-world setting (and which also hold great value as cultural representation). For one, the opening number, “The Family Madrigal,” is in the Colombian music style of Vallenato (though with some added Disney flair), which, according to UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), is a genre of “narrative style which, expresses daily life,” a perfect choice for a number meant to establish both the setting and the characters’ lives. Meanwhile, one could watch “Frozen” a hundred times and be content in the assumption that it takes place in some undefined fairytale world—it could be set in some far corner of Narnia and the plot would be no different. If “Encanto” wasn’t in Colombia, you would notice. The representation of its setting does the fundamental job of fixing the film’s place in our real world.
The way the film develops its characters is perhaps its strongest piece of realism—even if they are often singing, which is something that makes musicals seem unrealistic to many. Every important character has nuanced, believable motivations and perspectives. A great example is the relationship between Mirabel, the protagonist, and her sister Isabela. Their shared wish to bring pride to their family combines with Mirabel’s inability to live up to the expectations of her siblings and cousins (because she has no “gift”), making for an antagonistic dynamic between the two. Mirabel helps as much as she can while Isabela does what is expected of her effortlessly. This makes Mirabel frustrated with the apparent unfairness in their different treatment. Indeed, it is unfair how the family silently shuns Mirabel, but Isabela is also mistreated—though it’s not initially apparent to the audience. It’s revealed late in the film that she lives her life how she is expected to rather than how she actually wants, even to the point of accepting an arranged marriage. In all of this, Isabela sees Mirabel as being always and unnecessarily in the way. Both deeply misunderstand each other, and the source of misunderstanding is natural. Some audience members may have lived with the same sort of relationship, as the expectations these characters live with do not need literal magic to develop. It’s a realistic dynamic.
As a side note, Isabela is also a critique of Disney’s classic princess archetype— characters whom pop culture has flattened into images of perfection, though some of them were originally quite interesting and flawed. Isabela exemplifies how the film likes to shirk its studio’s norms, and it did so through realism rather than parody. If someone wants to criticize the princess archetype, the most obvious way to do so is through caricature; instead, “Encanto” used that archetype directly and then asked how that person might feel about needing to maintain that image. We can also see this trend of trope rejection with Mirabel, who, despite being the hero, does not have much in common with the princesses of old, which was done intentionally to help give her a unique identity (just like the film!).
This direction also involves a lack of naivety in the story. The conflict is not created by some external source that imposes itself on this otherwise-happy family. Instead, the Madrigals’ issues are internal and subtle, with believable dynamics and tensions between different family members, no singular source of trouble and no definitive villain. For example, it would be incredibly cliché if Abuela, the closest thing to a villain this film has, were made to be outright malicious, as if she were the evil stepmother from Disney’s “Cinderella.” But she’s not; and her motivations, while misguided, are believable and incredibly sympathetic.
Returning to the narrative purpose of magic, I should explain what I mean by “clarification and intensity.” It may be quite clear by now that the magical abilities of the Madrigals are allegories for “gifted” kids in real life. Just as Isabela must always stay perfect, a gifted high school student must always get straight A’s, or a talented athlete must always do well at practice and proper games. Of course, not every family imposes such expectations on their children, but it is a common phenomenon worth representing in such a film.
But unlike most allegories, this film’s is not meant to provide commentary. While the film most definitely provides commentary on its subject, it’s not accomplished by the allegory—the commentary is very direct and undisguised. Instead, the allegory here is used for exaggeration. The film’s “gifts”—these magical equivalents to being smart or athletic—are loud and obvious. They are eye-catching and avoid any confusion over why these characters would have such heavy expectations set upon them. This is partly done because “Encanto” is a family movie, and so a large portion of the audience will be kids who will not be able to appreciate all the details of every character’s dynamic; what they will understand is that the pretty flower lady is happy as she starts to grow things besides flowers. That is the purpose of magic within this realism.
“Encanto” is a super fun and touching movie. It has a whole lot more going for it than just its use of magic realism—after all, that only describes the genre, not the deeper details—but understanding this big piece of the film’s wonderful, distinct identity is important if one wishes to dive even deeper.