Beginning with Disney’s first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of 1937, the Mouse House’s message has always been about family. That laser beam focus makes for heartwarming storytelling but, more importantly, good business. The American family is the nurturer of democracy and the engine of consumption: launching trips to the movies and theme parks; boosting living room demand for the on-demand offerings of Disney+; feeding the boundless appetite for merchandise.
Music is merchandise. Disney’s latest, Encanto, its original songs expertly conjured by that sorcerer of music and words, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is back on or near the top: as of this week Encanto crowns the Billboard album charts, and the hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” has ascended to number two single, jostling Adele’s “Easy on Me” for pole position.
The classic onscreen Disney family was forged from real affection rather than genetic ties, and thus provided a harbinger of postmodern kinship. A few years after Snow White, Bambi’s mother was killed by a hunter early on in that movie. The young buck turns to interspecies pals Thumper the Rabbit and Flower the Skunk, that poster child of olfactory inclusion.
Though the studio has introduced gay characters into recent movies, Disney is no stranger to charges of racial and cultural stereotyping. The unlikely family comprised of Snow White and her adoptive uncles of diminutive stature raises hackles these days. Disney’s current plans for a live-action remake of Snow White were given a right scorching this week by Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage: “You’re progressive in one way but you’re still making that fucking backward story of seven dwarves living in the cave. What the fuck are you doing, man?”
Encanto turns the family-by-choice-and/or-circumstance on its head. With the exception of the dead patriarch, the family—given the musical name of Madrigal—is robustly intact and, as per the laws of melodrama, is intent on keeping it that way. But there are darks threats and a black sheep uncle lurking in the unseen shadows.
The clan’s flourishing abundance flirts, Disney-wise, with stereotypes of the fecund south, though the populations are kept in relative check: the heroine is one of “only” three sisters, and we learn that the eldest’s suitor “wants five babies.” Grandma gives her warm approval for such procreational commitment: “What a nice boy.”
But there is a sadness and fear inside this indomitable Abuela. Her disappeared husband, the pater familias whose portrait hangs in her grand house’s mezzanine, was ridden down in a creek as he and his then-young wife with her three newborn triplets tried to escape armed violence in Colombia. We aren’t told who these silhouetted equestrian thugs are: probably narco-killers rather than right-wing paramilitaries brought to life thanks to U.S. aid.
This single mother and her kids, along with dozens of fellow villagers, do not attempt to make it all the way to the Land of the Free. They don’t have to because they are bestowed with magical powers as well with as a lavish hacienda in the forest thanks to a mysterious candle. Leave it to Disney to solve (North) America’s immigration “crisis.”
The Encanto of the movie’s title is a Spanish translation of the Disney brand: it’s all about Enchantment. The Madrigal McGuffin of a candle deeds out unique gifts to each member of the family in special ceremonies: great strength is accorded one performance-enhanced weightlifter one of the younger set of Madrigal sisters; another is given princessy physical and sartorial perfection (a tepid bit of Disney self-parody); the ability to understand all animal languages is granted a young cousin. But our heroine, Mirabel Madrigal, was for unknown reasons denied her special power some years earlier. Ungifted, she tries to keep her snug Disney chin up against the more-talented-than-thou condescensions of her kin. But when the magic begins to flicker—the candle melting down like Disney’s pandemic share price—Mirabel sets out to save … the family!
Up to that point and throughout the film all the characters, from Abuela on down relentlessly avow their loyalty to the Madrigal line. The script is saturated with the word “family,” the metaphorical unit of Disney classics transformed into a tub-thumping literalness.
Rather than cramped quarters up north, the Madrigals sing and dance in and around the capacious Casa Madrigal. This mansion is smart; green, too, even if wisteria climbs up and bougainvillea cascades down the stucco façade. Lovingly called Casita by the family, the house is alive, assembling stairs when and where they are needed, shifting chairs and dishes into place, answering to all quotidian demands; emergency ones, too, for these will surely arise as things heat up. There’s no need for appliances and power lines. Nary a windmill or solar panel mars the lush landscape or domestic architecture.
The Casa Madrigal reminded me of Mar-a-Lago. Only in the world-according-to-Disney do refugees land in a fully loaded eco palace.
Encanto made plenty of money but disappointed the greedy studio financially on its theatrical release in November. The movie’s fortunes have improved since it began streaming on Disney+ on Christmas Eve.
This latest Disney musical wants to export its version of family values south, show that these pave the Latin American Way, too, even if Casita’s foundations begin to show cracks as the film’s plot staggers from one winning song to the next.
The need for relief from Encanto’s tiresome ostinato of “family” perhaps goes to explain the success of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Into the haughty andante groove stroll a string of Madrigals singing—in solo, duo, and other multiples—about not singing about their prodigal uncle, the supposed cause of coming calamity. Miranda’s melody serpentines through exotic intervals, the unutterable family secret slithering through the unconscious, troubling the characters as they dance. Even as the beat effortlessly glides through the next salsa step, it holds itself back as if resisting the seductions of rumor and truth. Midway through the number, harp halos and kindred schmaltz surround the amorous dreams of marriage-age Madrigal women, the glow of family and its propagation threatening to vanquish the ominous minor of the main theme. But these glowing visions are banished again as the song gathers momentum yet without speeding up towards, all the Madrigals joining at last in a rapturous polyphonic ode to silence—counterpoint as contradiction.
The chart-topping album is wise to have fled the movie to YouTube and TikTok and other places of asylum. While the film needs Miranda’s magic to animate the stagnant story, the music is better off on its own.
But however far those Encanto songs may journey, the money always gets sent home.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com)