The Disney villain is dead. Long live the Disney villain.
Over the past decade, Walt Disney Animation Studios has slowly been evolving the types of stories it tells, and while that might mean more compelling heroes’ journeys and family stories, it also means that the need for the traditional villain has slowly declined. Disney animated features have historically told stories of stalwart heroes facing off against nefarious villains, but as the studio has put more effort into complex, nuanced protagonists, and their relationships with other characters have become more dynamic, their movies have left little space for equally nuanced villains who can be developed within the limited runtime of an all-ages animated feature. The age of the traditional Disney villain, complete with bombastic songs, obviously nefarious motives, and oozy charisma, has perhaps passed.
But shedding such a quintessential part of the Disney Brand isn’t a simple feat. Moana, Frozen 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Raya and the Last Dragon all do away with the archetypal Disney villain in favor of different kinds of threats. In each of these movies, the heroes confront a danger that’s more of a concept or internal barrier than a specific baddie. And in each case, they learn and grow by facing their own mistakes.
Without a bad guy to defeat, however, each of these movies rushes the ending. The heroes still triumph at the last moment, but they rarely take time to explore the ramifications of their previous mistakes. By making some small, yet very key tweaks, though, Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro Smith, the filmmakers behind Disney’s Encanto, finally manage to make a Disney movie that feels stronger without a villain to conquer.
[Ed. note: This essay contains major spoilers for Encanto.]
Disney has spent the better half of the last 80 years or so centering its movies around theatrical bad guys, so the disappearance of the Disney villain marks a new wave of stories, exploring different themes, deeper characters, and more complicated relationships. The last traditional baddie was Mother Gothel in 2010’s Tangled, though a few subsequent movies dabbled with late-reveal villains, like scheming Prince Hans in Frozen, or Mayor Bellwether in Zootopia. The new era of Disney storytelling started to turn toward more metaphorical threats with Moana, where the volcanic threat to the ocean and Moana’s island is actually a life goddess who needs her heart restored. She’s a stand-in for the forces of nature, which need to be understood more than they need to be defeated.
The trend continued with the restless nature spirits in Frozen 2, the insecurity-replicating virus in Ralph Breaks the Internet, and the shapeless, shadowy Druun in Raya and the Last Dragon. None of these threats are the work of a cackling villain — they’re all reflections of human failings, and the characters ultimately have to turn inward to defeat them. In Frozen 2, princesses Anna and Elsa discover their grandfather’s wrongdoings and work to acknowledge the cruelty of Arendelle’s secret past. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ralph’s insecurities turn into a literal monster he has to understand to defeat. In Raya and the Last Dragon, warrior Raya realizes that the citizens of Kumandra must acknowledge their inequities and shared humanity, and come together to defeat the Druun.
All of these movies tackle complex themes in kid-friendly ways, with their own memorable characters and interesting relationships. But they do consistently run into the same problem in defining what victory over a concept really brings to the story. What does it mean for characters to rectify the mistakes of past generations, or confront their own weaknesses and prejudices? The writers on each of these films answer that question by letting the heroes save something physical and tangible — the city of Arendelle, the land of Kumandra, the internet itself. But in each of these situations, what gets broken is immediately fixed, leaving viewers to wonder how deeply the protagonists internalized their lessons, and how it matters for the future. In a Disney movie, the good guys need to win their battles. If they lost, and their homes were destroyed, their heroic journeys wouldn’t feel as triumphant.
But this is where Howard, Bush, and Castro Smith make Encanto succeed. The stakes are smaller and the problem is more specific, and more relatable to younger viewers. That means the characters can actually fail. And when they fail, they can pick themselves up and learn.
Encanto’s central character, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), realizes that her family’s magical house, the symbol of their power and prestige in the community, is beginning to fall apart. She knows she must do something to save it. The house bestows magical gifts onto her family, and as it crumbles, so do the family’s abilities.
As the movie goes on, it becomes evident that their home is more than just a magical gift-giving building: It’s also a symbol of the family’s relationships. Generational differences and stifled family roles have caused the family’s connections to fracture, which start to physically manifest in the house itself. Like the protagonists in Frozen 2, Raya, and Ralph Wrecks the Internet, Mirabel isn’t initially sure of the stakes — she sees the damage, but doesn’t know what it means. A good part of her journey involves figuring out what she’s trying to save, and what she’s battling against. But unlike the other heroes, Mirabel fails.
That is the small, yet powerful difference in Encanto: Mirabel realizes what’s wrong with the house, but she doesn’t have the power to stop the disaster all on her own. The house crumbles. She tries to save it, but it falls down around her. It fully collapses, and unlike with other Disney Deaths, the damage isn’t instantly reversed. The rest of the Madrigals are left to figure out what went wrong because they didn’t listen to Mirabel and didn’t save what they saw as their family’s most valuable possession. In the other movies, usually the protagonists realize their mistakes right as the climatic moments happen, so while they might momentarily appear to fail, it turns out they learned their lesson in the nick of time. Their efforts are rewarded, but with no time to process what led to that reward.
Encanto still has a happy ending, where the family and their community come together to rebuild the house. But that ending has more impact, because the filmmakers deliberately have the characters take time to learn from and discuss their mistakes before making the effort to fix them. The house isn’t abruptly rebuilt by magic — the Madrigals need to build it up from scratch, creating a new foundation to echo the words they sing about rebuilding their family.
In the runtime of the movie, the return to normalcy only takes the span of one song. But it’s clear that it takes time and effort for the family to literally rebuild their house and figuratively rebuild their understanding of each other. When the magic does return, Mirabel isn’t randomly granted magical powers, either. But because the family can finally see each other past their fixed roles and abilities, the audience knows she’s going to be okay. The Madrigals reach their place of understanding after the dust falls, not right before, and they learn from their failures, instead of narrowly avoiding them. Encanto succeeds where the other villain-less Disney movies struggle, and that success is found in Mirabel’s failure. Disney’s previous movies without a bad guy never quite reach their full potential, but Howard, Bush, and Castro Smith have finally made a film that steps out of Disney’s villain-laden past and into a new direction.
Encanto is out in theaters now.
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