Why the Best Animated Picture matters
Last week I posted a mini-review of ‘Encanto’ on my social-media feed. It went, in part:
“Put Frozen and Coco in a blender, remove 85 percent of the humor and originality, give every character creepy almond-shaped eyes, and set to pulverize. Add four syrupy anthems of self-actualization, one catchy hit song that’s the equivalent of a mild bowl of salsa, a thin metaphor about a black-sheep gay uncle, and a bunch of nonsense about a magic candle, and there you have one of the most condescending and annoying animated features ever made.”
Thus, I entered the Encanto discourse. I got plenty of smiley-faces and agreement. Other people also disliked Encanto. They found it shallow and insulting. One friend compared the hit song ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ to Rob Thomas’s and Carlos Santana’s ‘Smooth,’ which, admittedly, was also a harmless and good-natured hit back in its day.
But then there were the dissenters. I immediately dismissed anyone who said their kids liked Encanto. Kids like everything, whether it’s good or not. An animated movie has to be truly horrible or have a bad distribution plan to fail.
However, someone else accused me of having a “bad take,” saying that I was ignoring how the Latin American diaspora was fully embracing Encanto. The comparison to Coco was especially egregious because the two movies don’t have anything in common other than a South-of-the-U.S.A. setting. I clearly didn’t understand the realities of “intergenerational trauma” that the movie was addressing. Anyone who loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez would understand what Encanto was doing.
Trauma for kids
Telling a Jew that they don’t understand “intergenerational trauma” is like telling a mathematician they don’t understand algebra. My Aunt just sent me some family-tree research showing that the Holocaust cut off half the branches. Trauma is responsible for generations of anger and addiction that I have only just begun to slough off in the second half of my life.
And telling me that I didn’t get the Garcia Marquez references is also wrong. My mother was a Spanish teacher who practically raised me on magical realism. I read Love In The Time of Cholera the year it came out in Spanish. So you must forgive me if I don’t buy what Disney’s offering at this year’s culture mercado.
That said, the criticism did expand my ideas about Encanto. The movie opens with a young Colombian couple fleeing their village with their infant triplets because bad men have come to set fires. This directly corresponds to La Violencia, a violent internecine conflict that killed thousands in the mid-20th century. I can see how might be validating for a culture to see Disney represent its historical trauma onscreen. When Disney is 95 percent of the culture, it means something to see your body type or skin tone or hairstyle in a Disney movie.
But just because Encanto rips off Garcia Marquez’s image of swarming yellow butterflies doesn’t mean it’s ‘Cien Años de Soledad” for kids. The yellow butterflies, while symbolizing hope, also represented amorous encounters between forbidden lovers. At its core Encanto is a corny theater-kid movie about a magic candle that makes a magic house that gives a magic family magic powers. And the spunky teen girl at the film’s center needs to save the magic family by finding the magic within herself that was there all along. The magical-realist ghost of Gabo says: Barf.
Comparisons to Coco actually do apply. That’s a movie about the importance of family in Latin culture. Our protagonist is a young person vaguely nearing maturation who finds himself transported into magic in the midst of family conflict. Coco is beautifully-paced and exciting, full of humor and pathos, with an incredibly catchy theme song. It defines the terms of its magical realities in exact detail, so the viewer has no choice but to buy what it’s selling, leading to a deeply moving, fully-earned emotional finale. Whereas with Encanto, I just kept saying, what is up with that magic candle?
The difference between that ending and the ending of Encanto is the difference between a work of art and a cartoon. Mom would have liked Encanto, I think. She was a sucker for anything that represented Latin culture. But she would have liked Coco more.
Animated movies are important
Unlike Best Picture Oscar winners, most of which become stale beer the second the producers hoist the statue, most Best Animated Pictures have remained in the cultural conversation long after their wins, so the winner stays significant for a long time. The first animated winner, Shrek in 2002, hasn’t dated very well, but it sure was popular in its time. Beyond that, winners include any number of indisputed classics, like Spirited Away, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Up, odd but excellent curveballs like Rango and Zootopia, two Toy Stories, and one Spider-Man. I would watch any of them again today, with the exceptions of Shrek and Happy Feet and Frozen, and would do so happily.
Frozen is probably the best comparison with Encanto, both in terms of animation style and its ability to brainwash youth with earworms. But that movie had an internal logic and a plot. Encanto, on the other hand, goes, “the house is dying, grandma needs a hug.”
It’s also probably going to win Best Animated Picture. The Millers Vs. the Machines is a lot of fun, with some great gags, but it hasn’t created its own subgenre of discourse like Encanto has. I haven’t seen Luca, but based on our critic’s review, it probably doesn’t have a chance. Raya and the Last Dragon is kind of a wild card, but if they’re going to give the Oscar to Disney this year, it will go to Encanto.
The fifth and most interesting choice is the first-ever nominated documentary, Flee. Unlike the other nominees, this is in no way a movie for children. It tells the story of Amin, a gay Afghan refugee living in Denmark. As a dress-wearing boy in Kabul, Amir liked to dance through the streets listening to ‘Take On Me’ by a-ha. Flee cleverly and effectively deploys the animated style of Take On Me (at least in some segments) as it pulls Amin and his family through a series of experiences, both horrifying and stultifying, as they travel around the world escaping the Taliban and the equally deadly horrors of post-Soviet Russia.
Flee is definitely a movie for ages 12 and older. Maybe a precocious 10-year-old would get something out of it. But if you want an an animated film that addresses the true consequences of intergenerational trauma caused by a forced political relocation from your homeland, this is the only choice. In a surprise twist, you’d think that Amin’s family would shun him because he’s gay, but they’ve known his entire life, and have always accepted and loved him. Like Mirabel in Encanto, he has the special gift of being himself, and once he embraces that, his life can truly begin. His life takes place in a house in rural Denmark with a boring guy named Kasper. Mirabel, on the other hand, will forever live in a magical mountain forest with her superhuman family.
One is a movie for adults, the other is a movie for children featuring songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a songwriter for children. But if the Academy is going to nominate them together, then we need to talk about them together. When it comes to quality, there’s no comparison; Flee isn’t objectively very fun, but it’s definitely better. Inclusivity matters, but not at the expense of storytelling. Bad take or not, I hold firm: Encanto, no no no.