Review: Encanto (2021)

Encanto (2021) Encanto (2021)

Only the beautiful appearance of representation.

‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ is the first song + visual sequence combo since Lizzo’s ‘Juice’ whose perfection gives me literal headspins.

As for the rest of Encanto… i’m not sure the storytelling works? The magic seems both convoluted and under-explained; emotional beats are often payoffs without setups (or vice-versa); and thematically, it’s all over the place.

Of course, its representation is important: this is Disney’s first film set in Colombia, and features a large extended family which spans “European and Indigenous and African” backgrounds; the songs and dances span a range of Latin American styles and traditions; and the animation is beautiful – not just the sweeping set-pieces, but right down to the tiny details in the design and beats of the characters. Yet all of this doesn’t seem to support, or be supported by, the story.

What is Encanto about?

The arcs aren’t really arcs. The premise seems to be that being magical isn’t what makes one special – yet the story ends with Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) being… sort-of magical? Luisa (Jessica Darrow), who is coded as gender-non-conforming and/or queer, sings about ‘Surface Pressure‘ (another bop) and loses only a *bit* of her super-strength, but maybe gets it back anyway? And Abuela’s (María Cecilia Botero) defining tragedy (which is surprisingly dark, and is visited twice in the film) gives her the magic which in turn defines her family. It’s a potent metaphor for the lonely struggle of a widowed matriarch – as Dan Olson describes, the tone being set – yet as a metaphor, it doesn’t completely or satisfyingly track in either her relationship with her children and grandchildren, or in properly earning the idea that its resolution should be the “non-special” Mirabella rebuilding their Casita (effectively resetting the status quo).

And then there is, of course, Bruno (John Leguizamo). Why don’t we talk about Bruno? He’s coded as neurodivergent, obsessive-compulsive, and /or on the autism spectrum – which, in a Disney film, is another potentially interesting opportunity for representation. Bruno has been shunned by his family – in the story world, it is because his “vision” is an embarrassment, and so he leaves them; thematically, in a narrative purportedly exploring what are “gifts” or what makes one “special”, it is (or it should be) because the sight of him embarrasses the family, that they don’t know how to handle his idiosyncrasies, and so they other and ostracise him. The Madrigales’ collective arc should be that they learn to accept him for who he is, perhaps by way of learning to acknowledge and accept their own imperfections – which, beyond Luisa and Isabella (Diane Guerrero), isn’t really a thing that happens either. By the end, Bruno is just… kind of back? His ticks aren’t acknowledged by the others, and they’re altogether absent in the final scenes. And no-one in the Madrigal family seems to have learned, or even questioned, why they decided they wouldn’t talk about Bruno in the first place, and how they should maybe reflect on that.

Bruno, suddenly embraced by Abuela, says, "I feel like I missed something important" in 'Encanto'
So do I, Bruno. So do I.

Like its characters, and despite its purported representation, Encanto offers only the (very beautiful) appearance of representation; beneath its charming veneer, its storytelling is under-developed, and its messaging is ultimately disappointingly conservative.