When Disney got it right

Ok, so first of all, yes, this is a review of a Disney movie.

Deal with it.

Secondly, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have already done a blog about this, so I’m essentially cribbing from their blog, but I felt quite strongly about this subject so thought I would write about it in my own words.

Disney’s new animated movie, Encanto is wonderful and you should all watch it.

On the surface, it’s a movie about a family in Colombia with magical powers, it’s bright, it’s colourful, and the songs are fantastic (they’re written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote Hamilton and so on, so they are excellent and very catchy – one of the songs from the movie “We don’t talk about Bruno” has been number one in the UK charts for weeks).

However Encanto deals with some much bigger themes in a really sensitive way – something that Disney has been slowly getting better at over the years as they try to move away from the frankly embarassing racism, sexism and generally offensive stereotypes from their earlier movies. And this time they got it just right.

The family in Encanto, the Madrigals, are refugees, who have been forced to flee from violence and unrest in their undisclosed home, and make a new home somewhere else. They lost family members along the way, a story that is very familiar to many refugees around the world, and there is a lot of underlying trauma (“We don’t talk about Bruno” is a good example – lots of refugees have lost loved ones in traumatic ways and find it hard to talk about as they move into a new life).

Although the plot revolves around the family’s magical powers, the subtext deals with a major issue for many refugees – the need to feel useful and contribute to their new adopted home, and to prove themselves worthy of being there. For many refugees it’s not enough to just exist like everyone else, they need to prove that they are contributing to the economy an the local communtiy to deserve a right to stay there instead of being moved along somewhere else or forced to return to a place that isn’t safe.

And the pressure to do well, to be accepted, to prove your worth can be crushing, especially in many contexts where refugees aren’t allowed to work or can’t get legitimate papers to find jobs. Despite what the tabloids would have you believe, no-one wants to just survive on handouts, everyone would rather be useful, earn a salary and pay their own way, but refugees are often forced to depend on handouts and meagre benefits or aid, or rely on the kindness of their host community to survive. The pressure to pay that back, to be deemed worthy of assimilating with their new home can be crushing and the movie demonstrates this beautifully.

It also highlights the benefits that host communities gain – it celebrates the gifts and skills that refugees and migrants can offer – showing what they really can contribute to society when allowed a chance to do so in safety. And how important it is to welcome refugees and migrants with open arms and offer help and support when they need it the most.

Encanto dances around these issues in a masterful way that is light-hearted and kind, (and that you can sing along to!), and we can only hope it will encourage a new generation of children to view people forced into migration as assets to our communities rather than a burden or a drain on our resources, as some newspapers would have you believe.

If that wasn’t enough to make you want to see it immediately, it also contains a host of strong and independent female characters with an array of skills and talent. And perhaps more importantly, the male characters are portrayed in nurturing supportive roles, quietly doing equal amounts of childcare and cooking and cleaning in the background, or writing love poems and expressing themselves emotionally.

Bravo Disney, Bravo.

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