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One of the many celebrated innovations of Encanto, Disney’s irresistible animated musical and Oscar frontrunner for best animated feature, is that it does not feature a conventional villain. There’s no all-encompassing darkness threatening to swallow a peaceful realm, no sinister spiritualist coveting the soul of an innocent waif, and certainly no power-hungry evildoer plotting to usurp a mighty crown. In fact, there’s no crown to be had at all.
The closest thing we have to a baddie is Abuela Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero), the formidable matriarch of the magical Madrigal clan. Alma is a woman driven by grief and survivalism as much as she is by ego: Decades ago, she watched her beloved husband die at the hands of warmongers. She fled their village, eventually taking refuge in a charmingly mutable remote compound, and watched her offspring grow up with sui generis superhuman talents born from the metaphysical power of her suffering.
Alma takes so much pride in these protective gifts — herculean strength, gastronomic healing, etc. — that at some point she stops seeing her children and grandchildren as whole human beings with flaws and foibles too. The pressure they face to perform and live up to the sacrifices of their ancestors nearly tears the family apart. Protagonist Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who, much to her abuela‘s regret, has no magical power, seeks to bring these family rifts to light in an effort to save their bond. Colombia-set Encanto is, in large part, a story about intergenerational trauma, the nuances of deracination and the immigrant experience, and the self-destructive nature of perfectionistic people-pleasing. But, you know, it’s fun too!
Encanto is one of four animated films nominated for the best animated feature Oscar that examine realistically knotty familial dynamics. These films — among them Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon and Pixar’s Luca — solidify a new phase in family storytelling: the high-EQ kid pic. It’s no longer enough for an animated film to be merely tearjerking, visually stunning or technologically groundbreaking. To really move audiences, the story must speak to multifaceted relationship complexities that go beyond familiar conflicts and plot mechanics. After all, Encanto‘s chart-topping (and genre-busting) single, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” became a TikTok sensation partly because it delves into the backstory of the film’s mysterious black sheep uncle (John Leguizamo), a character many viewers believe may represent disabled or neurodivergent people excluded by their relatives.
Nearly a decade ago, the singular novelty of Frozen‘s love-hate sisterly discord led to its billion-dollar success, with fans of all ages belting out the movie’s self-actualizing power ballad, “Let It Go,” at children’s birthday parties and drunken karaoke nights alike. Similarly emotionally thorny box office hits followed suit — 2016’s adventure flick Moana uses a vengeful goddess character to touch on themes of consent, and 2017’s afterlife fantasy Coco examines issues of memory loss and familial legacy. Even 2020’s quasi-heist movie Soul punctures holes in the idea that creative passion makes life worth living. These award-winning films prove the value of reframing classic narratives for modern audiences who are well-versed in pop psychology and mental health memes.
According to the research of Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer, nearly 30 percent of American adults are unhappily estranged from a relative, and much has been written about the personal and community impacts of such fractured families. Given the prevalence of these rifts, it comes as no shock to me that the family-oriented films of this year’s animated feature race each investigate parental fissures. Sci-fi comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines follows an emotionally distant family on an ill-fated road trip to drop tech-whiz aspiring filmmaker Katie (Abbi Jacobson) off at college while her Luddite father (Danny McBride) frets about the future of their connection. The fantasy adventure Raya and the Last Dragon, about a warrior princess (Kelly Marie Tran) who’s effectively orphaned and attempts to piece back together a broken kingdom, explores survivor’s guilt, chosen family and the mental impact of traumatic events. Luca, the youngest-skewing of these movies, tells the story of two tween sea monsters who escape the cosseting grasp of their undersea parents to live as humans in an Italian seaside village.
While these movies, alongside Encanto, survey old-hat themes of newfound independence and clashes with elders, they also dig deeply into the psychology of their unique family dynamics. They don’t take for granted that blood will always be there for you. They don’t assume that blood is the end-all-be-all of what constitutes family.
It would be easy to claim that kid-friendly films have somehow gotten “smarter” in recent years, but they only reflect the cultural trends of our age. (The death of Bambi’s mother, of course, still shocks 80 years later, regardless of whether we name this pivotal cinematic moment as the fawn’s primary “adverse childhood experience.”) Audiences now expect emotionally frank children’s entertainment because the work of destigmatizing intricate feelings — and intricate feelings about those who are responsible for our well-being — should start when our neural networks are still developing.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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