Disney’s Encanto Follows in Studio Ghibli’s Footsteps
This article contains spoilers for the movie Encanto. My thanks to Alan Jacobs for recommending Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill, which helped spark the comparison in this article.
Disney’s latest animated success, Encanto, has been taking over homes, hearts, and minds since its release in late 2021. The film features many of the staples that Disney fans have come to expect: mesmerizing colors, an endearingly imperfect protagonist, and a jammin’ soundtrack. (Our home whiteboard has a section labeled “Days since ‘Bruno’ stuck in head.” It is permanently set to zero.)
But in other ways, Encanto departs from the well-established recipe of Disney’s animated hits. In fact, Encanto approaches the spirit of Studio Ghibli’s films—which have long been contrasted with Western-style animated movies—in some striking ways. For example, Encanto’s setting in a rural, traditional Colombian village is reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro’s nostalgic setting. Similarly, the magic of Encanto is not place-less but draws respectfully on Colombian culture and folk religion, much as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and other Studio Ghibli films are rooted in Japanese folk beliefs and practices.
Yet there’s another, even more interesting way in which Encanto imitates Studio Ghibli rather than following the norms of Western animation: the complete absence of a villain character.
The first time I watched Encanto, primed by a lifetime of watching animated Disney films, I first expected the villain to be Bruno. Indeed, the first half of the movie, and especially the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” plays directly into audience expectations for animated villains, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was intentional.
But almost immediately after the song, we actually meet Bruno, and when we do, we find out that the song provides us the other characters’ perceptions of the family misfit, not an accurate portrayal of either his demeanor or his intentions. Even the “rats along his back” are not an indication of his evilness but rather, the only companions remaining to him in his self-imposed exile. Bruno may be a villain in the eyes of some of his family members, and for a while, in the eyes of the audience, too. But by offering a seemingly straightforward musical introduction to the character and then “pulling back the curtain,” so to speak, Encanto gently teaches us not to rely on our first impressions, either in film or in real life.
Having been foiled in my first attempted identification of the (presumed essential) villain character, I next assigned the role to Abuela. Even more than Bruno, Abuela clearly stands in the way of Mirabel’s double goal of saving the family miracle and finding a place for herself in the family Madrigal. Yet just as soon as Abuela emerges as the best candidate for Official Villain, we discover that her protectiveness and controlling stance stem not from a hatred of Mirabel but rather, from the trauma of losing her husband so many years ago, which fuels a deep (if misguided) love for all of her family and the fear of losing them, too.
Once again, we’re given the chance to re-evaluate our assumptions about a supposed villain’s motives. By the movie’s end, Abuela even confesses her failings (i.e., prioritizing the miracle and the community service it enables over the individual persons who are members of her family) and asks for forgiveness, something villain characters simply do. Not. Do.
Thus, almost as soon as they’re identified, all of Encanto’s potential villains1 are revealed to be flawed yet sympathetic and complex, acting out of their own traumas and loves, all of which are deeply relatable. This lack of a clear villain places Encanto closer to Studio Ghibli films than to classic Disney ones.
While Studio Ghibli villains do exist, such as Yubaba in Spirited Away and the Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle, other films are able to tell interesting and thought-provoking stories without any villain at all. The protagonists of My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Secret Life of Arrietty, and From Up on Poppy Hill encounter various obstacles to their goals, including both human and non-human opponents, but none of these can be identified as evil or villainous. They’re all motivated by their own goals and desires, which happen to conflict for a time with those of the protagonists.
In contrast, Disney villains are quite infamous. From Peter Pan’s Captain Hook to Little Mermaid’s Ursula to Lion King’s Scar, these characters are portrayed through a consistent visual and auditory language as evil, twisted, and malicious. And instantly recognizable villains are not limited to Disney’s “golden era” of animated films: Tangled’s Mother Gothel and Frozen’s Prince Hans are just as clearly identified as their two-dimensional precursors. Even the most recent wave of animated Disney movies, which (like Encanto) try to draw more respectfully from non-Western cultures, continue to feature clear, unmistakable villains. Moana’s Tamatoa and Coco’s Ernesto de la Cruz are self-centered, greedy, and above all, utterly unsympathetic.
We’re not invited to relate to these characters, to see their motivations and flaws as cut out of the same cloth as our own. With a different narrative perspective, Bruno or Abuela could be the hero of Encanto just as easily as Mirabel. Scar, Mother Gothel, and Tamatoa could only ever be villains.
So Encanto departs from standard Disney animations and instead reflects the ethos of Studio Ghibli films in both its respectful portrayal of a particular landscape and culture and the absence of a purely evil villain character. However, Encanto lacks one key part of the Studio Ghibli special sauce. Studio Ghibli protagonists are often embedded in what many thinkers, following Wendell Berry, have called a “membership.” They inhabit full-fledged relationships with friends and neighbors that are only briefly featured on screen.
The clearest example is From Up on Poppy Hill: Umi’s house boarders and Shun’s parents play only a minimal role in the main plot of the film, but the brief glimpses we’re given of their relationships with the protagonists reveal them to be multi-faceted and mutually caring. Umi is even known by name to the town’s fishmonger, who appears in a single scene. Similarly, My Neighbor Totoro’s Satsuki recruits her neighbors—both human and spirit—to help find Mei when she goes missing, and Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service bids goodbye to friends and neighbors who know all about her training as a witch and wish her well on her new adventure.
Despite Encanto’s deep situatedness in place and culture, Mirabel and the family Madrigal are part of no such extended web of relationships. In fact, their lives generally unfold apart from the rest of the village. With the exception of a few men who “fall in love” and so become “part of the family Madrigal,” the villagers’ interactions with Mirabel’s family are limited to seeking miracle-gift-fueled assistance with specific tasks. Or, in the case of Bruno’s “victims,” having the effects of the miracle’s “gifts” imposed upon them, willingly or no.
In fact, the Madrigal family is so far disembedded in the village as a whole that Mirabel has to spend an entire song introducing the local kids to her family members and their gifts. While the song effectively and catchily serves its true purpose of introducing the family Madrigal to us, the audience, it nevertheless inadvertently reinforces the distance between the Madrigals and the villagers.
Of course, belonging to the membership of a local community is not the final word for Christian faithfulness, or for human flourishing more generally. In addition to the crucial call for disciples to leave their homes and spread the gospel throughout the world, communities themselves are not inherently virtuous or incubators of virtue.
As yet another Encanto earworm, “Surface Pressure,” reveals, subordinating the needs of the individual to those of the community can be just as harmful as pursuing individual fulfillment at the expense of connection and interdependence. In fact, Encanto’s finale beautifully illustrates what is arguably one of Christianity’s greatest gifts to Western culture: the irreducible and inviolable worth of every person, regardless of giftedness or capacity to contribute to the larger community. One might even say that this inherent worth and dignity of the individual person is what calls forth our mutual service. Certainly this is the villagers’ conclusion, as they bring their non-magical abilities to help rebuild the Madrigal family’s casita.
Ultimately, individual and community needs must exist in constructive tension, and we can all too easily jeopardize human well-being in either direction. In this regard, Encanto offers a welcome counterbalance to the well-worn formula for Disney animated films, with their clearly identified villains and (relatively) individualistic heroes. If Encanto represents a first step for Disney in moving toward a more Studio Ghibli-esque sensibility, it will be exciting to see where future Disney animated films might go next.
1. A third candidate is Isabella, particularly after she shows up in Bruno’s new prophecy for Mirabel.