Disney’s Encanto isn’t just about representation — it’s an act of defiance

If the concerns I consistently responded to on very first dates while residing in Los Angeles were any indicator, Americans tend to think about Colombia as a violent, drug-ridden stopped working state, half-slum and half-jungle, which likewise occurs to be the source of their coffee and Sofía Vergara. However who can blame them? They primarily learnt more about Colombia from motion pictures and tv, and there isn’t much space for subtlety in the exoticism of 1984’s Romancing the Stone, the cartel violence of Netflix’s Narcos series, or Gloria’s amusing otherness in ABC’s comedy Modern Household.

So when Disney revealed Encanto, a brand-new animated function that happens in my house nation of Colombia, it was undoubtedly interesting and confirming.

This enjoyment had its cautions. Disney has a complex history of portraying non-European cultures. Even beyond the clear cases of “This film was made in a different era,” such as the representation of Native-Americans in 1953’s Peter Pan or the softened bigotry of 1995’s Pocahontas, Disney developers still battle with clichéd representations of individuals of color, which naturally come under unlimited analysis in today’s more race-conscious environment.

Disney’s very first Black lead character, The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana, was presented in 2009. While she herself has actually ended up being a popular figure, her film took instant flak for its handling of race. A couple of years later on, Moana was typically favored, however suffered its own criticisms from Pacific Islander neighborhoods. Still, it marked a clear pivotal moment in the method the studio managed its non-white characters and settings. Moana discovered its heart in the amalgam of cultures it was representing. Its nods to Polynesian culture aren’t simply set-dressing, they’re essential parts of her story and its styles.

Get In Encanto, which isn’t simply embeded in a pastiche of comparable cultures, like Disney’s Latine-inspired program Elena of Avalor. Encanto writer-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro Smith wished to clearly set their story in the really genuine nation of Colombia. Their business’s current performance history of representation was definitely an excellent indication, however Hollywood’s history of representing Colombia was factor enough for doubts. These issues all discovered a location amidst the cumulative Colombian enjoyment as Encanto’s opening night approached, however for me, a minimum of, they vanished a couple of minutes into the film’s beginning. When we discover that the main household, the Madrigals, like countless genuine Colombians, have actually been displaced from their house by that abstract, universal force we tend to merely call The Violence, it appeared obvious that Bush, Howard, and Smith weren’t simply originating from a location of understanding, it was likewise a location of love.

The Madrigal family in Encanto

Image: Walt Disney Animation

Encanto informs the story of Mirabel Madrigal, who was born into a wonderful household where everybody has an unique present other than her. Among her siblings is super-strong, another can produce flowers out of no place, her mama can treat any condition with her food, etc. However Mirabel was never ever offered an unique present, and her absence of powers is a routine source of stress in between her and her Abuela.

These gifts aren’t innate. They are offered to the family by a magical candle the Madrigals call “our miracle,” a force that saved Abuela and her three kids when she was young when they were forced to flee their hometown. As The Violence caught up with them, killing their Abuelo, the candle gave the surviving Madrigals a home: a magical house that became a source of refuge, comfort, and the subsequent generations’ special gifts.

The movie follows Mirabel as she sees that the house, their Casita, is starting to crack at the foundations, which her Abuela adamantly denies in an effort to maintain order. It’s up to Mirabel, the least special Madrigal, to find out what’s endangering their miracle and to protect the home that has protected her family all these years.

That quest to save her beloved house makes Encanto not just a story set in Colombia, but about Colombia as well. There’s nothing more Colombian than the desire to find a home in an inherently broken country.

Colombia’s problems are so intrinsic that being aware of them from birth almost seems necessary to feel Colombian at all. The genocidal conquest by Spain, as well as the subsequent decade-long independence process, set the stage for a very messy 200 years of history. Nine civil wars in between liberals and conservatives during the 19th century resulted in an unsolvable national schism where the only overlap between the two sides was the exploitation and dismissal of a mostly racialized rural underclass. Class tensions steadily grew until the global advent of Communism gave birth to leftist guerrilla warfare, spawning fascist militias across the country in response. In this armed conflict, both sides eventually gave up ideology in favor of the blood-stained profits of drug trafficking.

This is a very brief and even generous summary of our national history, but it’s still more detailed than the image the First World tends to have of us. It makes sense, though, that as this violent environment became pervasive, most of the media made about us focused solely on that. The Violence, after all, stains almost every Colombian family. This focus on the country’s tensions happens in Colombian-made media too, as exemplified by the “narco-novelas” that clutter our networks. We have come to believe that this is all we get: an echo chamber of drugs, massacres, kidnappings, indifferent politicians, and a population that lacks memory, but still bears its baggage.

The Colombian Cultural Trust — a collection of consultants from a wide variety of fields, brought in to ensure the film’s authenticity — may have spoken to the writer-directors about this problem. Disney’s movie about our country couldn’t overtly include our violent past and present. But at some point, they decided not to ignore it, either. Disney’s Colombian movie centers on finding a place free of that innate suffering: a place its people can safely call home.

the magical madrigal house with mirabel standing in front of it

Image: Walt Disney Animation

So how wonderful, really, that we get to indulge in the fun, the color, the joy of Encanto when so much of the media about ourselves is focused on these vicious cycles of violence that we’re trapped in. What a miracle that we still, after all this time, have such beautiful things for Disney to portray, from unique musical stylings to delicious food and a rich storytelling tradition. Just as the Madrigals discovered, it’s a miracle that we can still share these presents at all.

“Representation matters” has become a cliché, especially since representation only superficially addresses the larger cultural problems of Hollywood media. However, there’s no denying that there is power in seeing your own world elevated to the ranks of iconic fairytales and animated blockbusters.

The Cultural Trust helped Encanto leave behind caricature and stereotypes to create something that rings true to its subjects. This approach, first implemented with the Oceanic Story Trust in the production of Moana, is proving to be a step in the right direction for Disney when it comes to telling stories outside of the European bubble.

Is this the product of a multi-billion-dollar corporation that’s coming to understand what good business it is to appeal to increasingly diverse markets? Of course, but that doesn’t prevent the smaller players within this system from approaching a personal project with love. They set out to create something that would resonate with people around the world — but also specifically with Colombians, knowing that we don’t always get to feel that way. And if initial reactions here in Colombia are any indication, the film is resonating. Not because of cynical corporate decisions, but because the artists behind the movie cared.

But this is about a lot more than just representation. The happiness portrayed in Encanto isn’t just escapism, it’s defiance. It’s about challenging that notion that we Colombians have to be miserable forever.

After arguing throughout the whole movie about how to save the house and who’s to blame for its impending destruction, the Madrigals ultimately have to accept that their miracle wasn’t the magical house, or their magical gifts. In fact, the miracle is that after all these years, the household has somehow figured out how to thrive in the face of tragedy. The magic provided them their Casita, sure, but they were the ones to create love, beauty, and community in it. A broken history got them there, but it’s a wonder that they’re still there regardless. And at the end of the day, that’s worth a lot.

In the process of deeply rooting the film in Colombian culture, whether through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s well-researched music that spans all sorts of regional genres or the unique cast of characters meant to encompass a weird and disparate nation, Encanto celebrates the diversity of Colombia, the happiness to be found in its art, its nature, its heritage, and, more than anything, its people.

Perhaps the most telling detail is the deliberate choice to not give The Violence a face. If the brief history lesson above is any indication, this force that displaced the Madrigals could have been anything from militias to warlords. Sure, Disney was probably avoiding details because they’d be too graphic or complicated for young viewers (or, more cynically, because they might be taken as a political statement). But I choose to see it differently.

In Encanto, unlike all other American depictions of Colombia, there’s no room for The Violence or its perpetrators. The focus is on the survivors. It’s about the miracle of thriving when you seem nearly cosmically predisposed to suffer ad infinitum. Because that’s what Colombia is: a nation of people trying their best to thrive in spite of themselves.

We’re a nation of Mirabels, all struggling to figure out how to fix these evils that seem like our birthright. Like Mirabel’s prognosticating Uncle Bruno, we’re overwhelmed with an undeniably dire future. Like Abuela, we sometimes fight to pretend these threats aren’t there, because we can’t bear the thought of facing them again. Like the Madrigals, we’re each trying to deal with all this alone — and realizing, perhaps through projects like Encanto, that maybe we don’t have actually to.

Encanto remains in theaters and now streaming on Disney Plus.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.