Content warning: this review discusses racism, which may be upsetting to some readers.
Blackness has long been misrepresented or absent in Disney’s animation catalog, with previous depictions facing justified scrutiny. The company’s first big stride in representation came with Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog” (2009); Tiana was the first Black Disney princess and the film was Disney’s first animated story led by a Black character.
“Encanto” represents another large stride for representation in Disney. The movie handles representation of the Black experience in a caring manner, where the Black characters aren’t subordinates, but full-fledged people who have purpose beyond assisting the main character.
It is important to remember Disney’s heinous depictions of Black people in the past before delving into “Encanto.” “Fantasia” (1940) and “Song of the South” (1946) both employ racist stereotypes: the former employs a slave caricature while the latter depicts plantations positively. Furthermore, the former Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House at Disneyland, which has become the Magnolia Tree Terrace today, relied on harmful stereotypes about Black women.
Although Disney has featured admirable Black characters like Princess Tiana and Joe Gardner from “Soul” in recent years, there are still problems. Namely that Disney consistently turns Black characters into animals or otherwise non-human beings. Both “The Princess and the Frog” and “Soul,” alongside “Brother Bear” and “The Emperor’s New Groove,” have been called out for their depictions of people of color as disembodied, effectively dehumanizing the characters in a way that rarely occurs for white counterparts.
The trailer for “Encanto” sparked both caution and hope about how Disney would handle this story of magical realism that’s filled with a myriad of skin tones, ringing true to the diverse shades found not only in Colombia but in Latin America as a whole. In particular, the representation of Afro-Latinos and darker skinned Latinos — a first for Disney — and the reframing of Colombia away from the grim tales of Pablo Escobar and drug cartels brought hope that the film would center the diverse, beautiful and vibrant realities of the country.
“Encanto” may be Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 60th film, but it is the first time the studio has truly tackled the perspectives of Latin Americans. In 1943, the studio released a series of shorts under the title “Saludos Amigos,” which was set in the region, but it was largely developed under pressure from the United States government to assist with the “Good Neighbor Policy.” Although “Saludos Amigos” revolves around Latin Americans and their homes, it is not representative because it simply uses the region as a setting rather than centering Latin American voices as leads.
“Encanto” has sat in the spotlight since its release, with the film and its music receiving acclaim at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” out-charted Adele’s “Easy on Me” on the Billboard Hot 100 and is the second Disney animated film soundtrack to reach number one after “A Whole New World” from the movie “Aladdin.” The soundtrack to the film was also number one on the Billboard 200 for six consecutive weeks.
This momentum shows the cultural importance of the film in the United States and abroad. Accurate storylines that feature actors connected to the culture depicted in the film are significant in helping viewers feel respected and seen. I grew up aspiring to be like Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) in “High School Musical” only to find out that Hudgens isn’t actually Latina like her character Montez. Representation also faltered in the recent “In the Heights” film, which cast no Afro-Latinos despite being centered on the predominantly Dominican New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. It is important for filmmakers and those involved in casting to understand that people of color aren’t interchangeable for one another when choosing their casts. This is especially true for stories where the characters’ cultures are significant to the storyline. I am happy to see a film like “Encanto” achieve widespread success when the mere existence of Afro-Latinos and Latinos with indigenous features has been disparaged and rarely depicted. These images push back on the prevalent and manufactured narrative that all Colombians, and Latinos for that matter, look like Sofia Vergara or Shakira.
The animated characters showed improved racial diversity, but so did the voice actors. The overwhelmingly Colombian cast of “Encanto” represents its characters accurately when the studio could have easily exploited the “star power” of well-known, non-Latino actors to drive up ticket sales. Furthermore, all of the Afro-Latino characters — Camilo, Félix, Antonio and Dolores — are played by Afro-Latino voice actors.
“Encanto” is more than its cultural impact and critical acclaim; the film is significant for individuals who can finally see themselves respectfully represented on screen. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reports that people of color are out-represented in children’s books by animals. Furthermore, today Latinos make up about a fifth of the U.S. population — of that number nearly a quarter are Afro-Latinos — and are the biggest filmgoers. “Encanto” moves in the right direction for closing these representation gaps.
As one Twitter user wrote on “Encanto:” “It was nice to see Afro-Latinos like myself in there. It was nice to feel seen even if in just a cartoon movie.”
Outside of its character representation, “Encanto” also succeeds by centering its plot on intergenerational trauma and respectfully touching on modern day issues in Colombia and Latin America. The violent displacement of Alma, the matriarch of the family, and the creation of the “miracle” following her husband’s sacrifice have domino effects that unconsciously stress Alma and the family dynamic. When first watching the film, I saw my family in the Madrigals, particularly my father’s mother in Alma.
In truth, the conflict conditions like the ones depicted in the film are the reason that I even have a life in America, as my family escaped the civil war in El Salvador. My grandmother and the rest of the family were raised with the armed conflicts of the soccer war, the civil war and the mass killings of indigenous people. Life moved on despite the looming chaos and cyclical poverty it maintained, leaving little time to talk about mental health, an almost unknown concept at the time. Now, my family has struggled to discuss mental health issues without stigma. My parents, grandparents and the generations before them never had childhoods. Young kids and adults had to work to survive and provide for their families. This lifestyle meant that there was no time to discuss depression; you had to work and be wary of the constant violence. I am glad that my family has finally begun to discuss issues of depression and mental health, and I appreciate how “Encanto” delicately addresses the realities of intergenerational trauma.
Alma’s trauma reflects the true conditions that many Latin American families have dealt with through decades of wars, conflicts and colonial violence that have left them displaced and in poverty. This turmoil is still present in Colombia, which has the second highest rate of inter-country displacement (only behind Syria). However, despite its depiction of chaos and conflict, “Encanto” is not a story of pity but rather one of joy and healing. The Madrigal family and Alma recognize their shared trauma and work together to become stronger. In the end, the movie has no villain in the traditional sense. The villain is instead the trauma that plagued the Madrigal family.
This film has artfully shared a piece of Colombia and the Afro-Latino experience, showing promise for the studios’ future projects. My only fear is that the raw, personal stories people hold close to their heart will be commodified. Film studios like Disney need to be cautious as they work to tell more diverse stories to fit in with our present-day cultural expectations. Studios need to go beyond simply depicting people of color for the sake of selling merchandise and to show that they have diverse characters. They instead need to have diverse staff off-screen and on-screen that are culturally in-line with the stories they are trying to portray.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.