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The Dawn of a More “Encanto” Disney?

Storming our screens in this new year has been Disney’s latest animated export: Encanto, which was released in late November 2021, has become a phenomenon that has again brought Latin-American culture to a screen which has so often been obsessed by the white damsel in distress. The importance of animation that represents ethnic minorities is perhaps no more relevant to us as students in St Andrews, where people of various different ethnicities and cultures come here to live and study.

Encanto centres around the enchanting Madrigal Family who reside in the Columbian mountains and who each have a magical gift, told through the bouncy opening number “The Family Madrigal” by lead character, Mirabel. Voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, Mirabel is the only Madrigal not to receive a magical gift, a trait which she feels shame over, becoming a form of disappointment to the family matriarch, Abuela.

The film becomes a sensation of colour, with the powerful tones of the green Colombian mountains existing in harmony with the floral Casa Madrigal — the magical all-performing home of the Madrigals which exists as assistance, comfort and safety for the characters.

The bright palette of the film is perhaps best aided by the colourful score by Hamilton and In The Heights creator Lin Manuel Miranda who has become well-known for his pioneering compositions. A key attribute to this film is Manuel Miranda’s commitment to highlighting Colombian culture through the film’s music, which both warming and witty, eagerly conveys his passion for this story and its characters. He peaks in the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” in which Mirabel learns of the forbidden tale of her mysterious and visionary Uncle Bruno, who lives in hiding. The song has already become a fan-favourite, garnering over 60 million streams on spotify, highlighting that Disney’s culturally diverse music is reacting swimmingly with viewers. Though I doubt the mere success of the soundtrack is more fulfilling to him than placing another Latin-American story on the bookshelf of Disney.

As a white male who has been little exposed to Colombian culture, I found Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith’s use of magic-realism within the screenplay an excellent way of creating a work which combined that age-old Disney imagination with a realistic setting that stayed true to Colombian communities. Their heartwarming characterisation of Mirabel ticked all the boxes of a disney heroine. However, unlike countless other heroines, Mirabel isn’t white. Though she is animated, undoubtedly a BAME female main character is a move by Disney that shows their endeavour to promote diverse characters and stories that reflect the diversity in the real world.

After watching Encanto, I decided to watch another of Disney’s diverse animated films of 2021: Luca which is set on the Italian Riviera and tells the story of Luca, a 12 year old sea creature who winds up in the town of Portorosso, where he is human. Meeting another like himself, he sparks a friendship with Alberto and the two navigate their way through the island, captivated by its endless opportunities in comparison to under the sea.

Many students will see themselves as a Luca, someone who is different and who comes to a town which may be completely different to the norms and customs of their previous home. Like Encanto, the film is excellent in educating audiences about Italian culture and folklore, which may otherwise be untouched by us. This was yet another heartwarming animation that touched my heart and which provided an insightful break from the less diverse Disney films which dominate the rows of Disney plus. While in recent years, Disney has shown a commitment to telling the stories of minority communities, it would be foolish to think that we have achieved diversity fully. Films like Encanto and Luca which stand alongside fellow animations like Moana and Coco are outnumbered by animated films which feature eurocentric stories. We live in a town with a BAME student population of over 20%, yet compared to animated classics which feature primarily white characters, these minority communities who we live with, are poorly represented in Disney films.

Disney’s recent trailblazer in Encanto has reminded us of the importance of cultural diversity and while it is one but a few films, its significance is recognised. So, while we don’t not talk about Bruno, we can speak about Disney’s re-envisioning of its animation instead.

Encanto and Luca are both available to stream on Disney Plus.

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