Which of the three characters above do you think is the lead character in Disney’s new animated feature film?
If you’ve seen any of the marketing you’ll already know the answer, but you get my point.
Disney have been trying to present different types of people as the female leads in their films for a little while now. Ignoring the two Frozen movies for a moment, recently they’ve given us Moana and Raya. The main aim has been to have protagonists from different backgrounds, something that Encanto fits into as well, but they have also moved away from the tiny waisted physique, the big eyes and the flowing locks of the typical Disney Princess. Vanellope from Wreck It Ralph and it’s sequel stand as an example of this too and in the second of these they even made something of it in the story.
Heavily cartoonified as she is though, Vanellope is not really someone young audiences are immediately likely to identify with. More important as role models are Moana and Raya and now Mirabel, who is the second of those pictured at the start. Even more than those that came before though, this new hero is very normal in her appearance. The first of those above is her sister Isabela who is depicted as insufferably perfect and totally unrelatable, which has to be some comment on all of the Mary Sue female heroes who have come before, those whose styling is more similar to hers. It becomes a slightly more layered message as the film progresses too and I am sure it is deliberate.
Mirabel’s normality is actually the driving narrative force of the film; her being the only member of her family not bestowed with magical powers. As soon as I say this you might have an idea in your head of where you think the plot will end up but it may surprise you and crucially it doesn’t undermine its message that anyone can be a hero. Having said this I’m not entirely sure of where the plot does end up, the writing not being as clear or, dare I say as well developed, as it could be.
Encanto also bucks tradition in how it handles its bad guys. Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon both had villains who redeemed themselves in the final act but Encanto goes further in not having its antagonist be at all villainous to start. I won’t say who I am talking about other than to mention that it also plays with the trope of the evil matriarch in interesting ways.
Even with all of this though, Encanto is second tier Disney. The songs by Lin Manuel Miranda are catchy but surprisingly unmemorable and the staging of these doesn’t always make sense. There is one tune, sung by the third sister Luisa that has the most fantastical, imaginative visuals mirroring those in Friend Like Me or You’re Welcome, but unlike with the Genie or Maui, there is no context for any of the characters being able to conjure these flights of fancy.
Encanto is charming and it will more than entertain its target audience but in the end it has some great ideas without the real knowledge of how to take them to their full potential. It’s magic but it doesn’t quite land the trick.