One of the most enjoyable qualities of Disney’s Encanto is its colorful cast of characters. The large Madrigal family is an ensemble cast of more than ten named members. However, for a children’s film that has to deal with the short attention spans of their target audience and a runtime of less than two hours, a large cast can become detrimental. Previous Disney movies, classics and modern classics alike, focus on one or two main characters, which gives the films enough time to fully explore each one. Older Disney films often place more focus on story rather than characters and give the most focus to only one, often the titular character. Consider Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which presents Snow White as more of a fairy tale princess archetype than a three-dimensional character. What’s more, despite having seven dwarves included in the character list, only Grumpy receives character development, which is more than can be said of Snow White herself. Similarly, Cinderella is the main focus of her own movie, leaving little room for other characters. Even her own prince is called by a descriptor rather than a name, Prince Charming.
Deuteragonist-centered stories became the norm for Disney beginning in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog, which not only centered on Tiana, the titular princess, but also on Naveen, her love interest. Naveen arguably even receives a more fleshed out character arc. Newer films follow this pattern. Tangled focuses on Rapunzel and Flynn’s individual growth and their shared romance; Moana tells the story of Moana grappling with her identity and the demigod Maui, who has insecurities of his own; and Frozen centers on the strained relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna.
In 2017, Coco became an interesting case. While the story centers on Miguel and Hector, the film also introduces many named members of Miguel’s deceased extended family in skeleton form, each of them with their own life stories. However, because there are so many family members to commit to memory, many of their names are easily forgotten, except Imelda. It’s a sad fate for the Rivera family, who, in-universe, need to be remembered by their living family, to be forgotten by viewers as soon as the movie ends.
Much like Coco, Encanto features a large ensemble cast of colorful and quirky family members to follow. The Madrigal family’s variety goes hand-in-hand with the theme of the movie, that being the problems of generational trauma and dysfunctional families. However, each member of the Madrigal family is given a unique and memorable magical gift, which helps them to stick in the mind better than Coco’s extended family.
Encanto also prioritizes certain characters, and in doing so, provides many examples for viewers to identify with. Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) strength and ability to carry the weight of her family and the village in the encanto become a burden to her when the pressure gets too heavy. Isabella’s (Dianne Guerrero) perfection becomes stifling to the point of marrying someone she has no desire to marry for the sake of the family and for Abuela’s continued love. As the main character, Mirabel’s (Stephanie Beatriz) lack of a gift becomes a sore spot for her, as Abuela (Maria Cecilia Botero) casts her aside, and she is in danger of becoming the next Bruno (John Leguizamo) of her generation.
Bruno himself, though not given much screen time, has a presence that is felt throughout the movie, due to the legacy he leaves behind. The repeated phrase, “We don’t talk about Bruno,” only makes a viewer more curious about why. While aspects of Bruno’s story match his nieces – the pressure of the family played a large part in his decision to leave – his unique experience sets him apart as well. His ability to see the future drove a wedge between him and his family, as no one wanted to hear about the futures he saw and blamed him for telling them valuable, but hard-to-swallow, truths.
Even smaller characters like Delores (Adassa) have her moments, which are quick but meaningful. This is exemplified by her portion of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” during which Delores has one verse lamenting that the man of her dreams will be betrothed to someone else. Delores also mentions in her quick stream of verses earlier in the song that she “grew to live in fear” of Bruno’s visions because she “could always hear him…muttering and mumbling.” Delores hears everything that happens in the encanto, which is surely a “heavy lift,” a descriptor that she attributes to Bruno’s gift but also fits hers, as well as the rest of the family’s. It can’t be easily knowing everything that happens within her family but not having the ability to act on the surrounding unhappiness.
Even the less prominent characters – aunts, uncles, and cousins – have layers of unhappiness baked into their characters, shown more by implication than outright development. Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) must always keep her emotions in check, or she could ruin the weather for herself and everyone around her. Though not much screen time or development is given to Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz), his shapeshifting would definitely have drawbacks; how demoralizing would it be to be surrounded by the people you love only for them to request you change form into someone else? And while Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) seems happy with his gift, the trauma around what happened during Mirabel’s ceremony rattles him as well.
The film not only prioritizes its characters, but it also uses its songs efficiently. “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” is a popular hit for many reasons, but one of them is its ability to weave so many character traits, secrets, and rumors from so many characters into one coherent song (it truly is a blessing that Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for his compositions and masterful lyricism in the stage play Hamilton, composed Encanto’s songs). For instance, toward the end of the number, when the cast is singing over each other in harmony, Isabella switches her lyrics to “I’m fine,” which has already been established as one of Mirabel’s lies in her song, “Waiting on a Miracle.” This clever hint is only one of many.
Despite the difficulties of time constraints, Encanto‘s best quality is arguably its large cast size, which allows it to reach many types of viewers while still keeping strong character arcs, a new formula that Disney seems to be excelling at, in comparison to previous, one- or two-character movies. Though neither is inherently better than the other, Encanto’s best and most memorable stand-out feature is its large and developed ensemble cast.