Readers Write In #476: Under the surface, how Crazy is Encanto?

Posted on August 14, 2022

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By Karthik Amarnath

Encanto, the recent feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, could have easily been set in India. There’s a great big joint family living in a great big house, the kind we have seen in so many Tamil movies, dating all the way back to a melodrama monolith like Vietnam Veedu. The great big family in Encanto is ruled by a hard-nosed, steely-eyed matriarch; a character that SriVidya or KPAC Lalitha could have sleepwalked through. There’s much in Encanto, from an impending arranged marriage, to sibling rivalry, a runaway son, that’s the stuff of what we’d call a typical Indian “family movie.” 

But that’s only the surface.

The film, about a fictional Colombian family called the Madrigals, is wildly imaginative, with a visual aesthetic possessed by the magical realist spirit of Colombian literary genius Gabriel Garcia Marquez (there’s even a gorgeous scene with golden butterflies fluttering over a lake). The film is set in a real time, in the wake of the Thousand day war, no less. Yet, just as the title promised, the film is nothing short of enchanting. And oddly enough, it has very little of the absurdities that you’d normally associate with a Disney animation. No evil witches, no tall castles, no wisecracking sidekicks. Yes, there is a boy who talks to animals, and a house that hilariously talks to a girl. But even that humor is laced with strands of seriousness. And look at the magic in the rest of the Madrigal family. A daughter who hears too much but says too little. A son who says what no one wants to hear. A mom whose food can heal. An aunt whose mood everyone feels. Is that really magic? That’s just lunchtime in any big joint family.

To be fair, Encanto is a quintessential Disney fairytale. It has the quintessential damsel in distress, a “princess” who waits for a man. There’s mystery, there’s magic, and there’s songs. Beautiful songs. I’ll admit, there’s a doe-eyed child in me who enjoys the Disney fairytale movie. Keeping aside the fact that every existential crisis is solved by a soulful swapping of saliva, I find there’s an ageless appeal to these movies. Especially ones that have come out in recent times. The animation quality is off the charts. The themes are more intimate, characters more rounded. The humor has evolved, its more charmingly existential (a Demi-God with a God complex</a>) or inventively absurd (a snowman dreaming of summer), and even the self referential bits are crackingly clever (a princess green room inside the Disney portal).  

To find a body of work in the Indian context with that combination of comic, absurd, and ageless appeal, Crazy Mohan’s stage plays come to mind. I’d be surprised if I heard that Crazy Mohan was not a fan of Disney movies. In almost all of his plays, he puts his quintessential hero “Maadhu” in “damsel in distress” situations. And the situations are absurdly inventive (like a man who lives with two wives in the same house, and yet neither of them knows??) or downright crazy (like a baby who ages three years every day). But no matter how inane, in Crazy Mohan’s hands, plots became play toys, and he rattled, crumpled and squeezed them for every laugh he could get. There’s crackingly clever wordplay and some Disney kind of magic too (Who is Chocolate Krishna if not a reinvention of the fairy Godmother?) And for every big strong man who shows up to save a Disney princess, there’s Crazy Mohan himself showing up as the Dude-ex-machina to save the hero Maadhu.

Quite unsurprisingly, the Tamil movie that Encanto reminded me of was Aaha!, a film thats mostly memorable because of Crazy Mohan. He wrote the dialogue. Both Aaha! And Encanto have a central protagonist who’s deemed unspecial or worthless in a big family. The one-line story for both movies is that this unspecial protagonist shows his/her worth by “saving” that family. Its simple and cliched, but in Encanto, that simple storyline is transformed into a spellbinding spectacle with dazzling visuals, precious detailing, and beautiful, beautiful songs. Aaha! on the other hand isnt quite a cinematic feat, but what might have been meh was made memorable through Crazy Mohan’s wizardry with words. 

Aaha!’s big Brahminical household fell right in Crazy Mohan’s sweet spot, and he imbues the dialogue with distinctive comic flavor (sometimes literally, since two of the main characters are cooks) and some delightful wordplay (Anandachari/Antakshari, Pul Tharai/Puliyotharai). His dialogues dont just bide their time to build up to a punchline. Sometimes, there’s punch after punch after punch till you’re knocked out of your seat clutching your belly. The film’s best scenes are the ones with Delhi Ganesh, who seemed to have dusted off his wardrobe and utensils from MMKR to deliver delectable lines. 

Aaha!’s script wasn’t Crazy Mohan’s (Suresh Krissna and Ananthu share the story/screenplay credit), and underneath all the crazy humor there’s a semi-serious “family movie”. There’s a hard-nosed patriarch, an impending arranged marriage, a misunderstood son. There’s an ensemble of entertaining characters, and there’s Raghuvaran, who puts in a typically subdued performance, dusting off his wardrobe and manners from Anjali. As the protagonist’s elder brother, he plays it straight, as a perfect son, a perfect husband, up until a secret is revealed, at the interval point. Raghuvaran has a towering presence, and his muted mannerisms stand in stark contrast to the rest of the loud and loquacious crowd. But when his character’s secret is out in the open, he finally breaks down and lets you see a vulnerable side. Its a lovely moment with little dialogue, and makes you instantly empathize with this man who’s been burdened with an image of unshakable perfection.

The parallel in Encanto to the Raghuvaran character is a young woman named Luisa, who’s the protagonist Mirabelle’s elder sister. Luisa is big and tall, and she’s gifted with super strength, which is really just a metaphor for being tough, and doing all the heavy-lifting for the family (there’s a hilarious image of her, carrying a drove of donkeys on her shoulder). Luisa, like Raghuvaran’s character, also gets to show the vulnerability hiding underneath her super strength. And this happens through a spectacular song, titled Surface Pressure, which is the film’s best song, and arguably the greatest character introduction song in the Disney Universe. 

Surface Pressure, according to the composer (Tony Award winner) Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a love letter to his big sister, who had to deal with the pressure of being the oldest, and carrying burdens he never had to carry. The song is all of four minutes, and has the lyrical simplicity of a typical Disney musical number. But Jessica Darrow who voices Luisa packs a wallop, and lets her voice ride a gamut of emotions. She starts with a muscular opening, almost like a boxer’s taunt (I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous, I’m as tough as the crust of the earth is) and within a few lines, her voice starts straining as she confesses her fears (Under the Surface, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.) and then the voice soars, the tension rises, till all of a sudden Darrow drops it down to a childlike plea (Pressure like a drip, drip, drip, that’ll never stop.)  

But the part that really hit home for me is when she almost tears up and sings 

If I could shake, the crushing weight, of expectations

Would that free some room, up for joy

Or relaxation, or simple pleasure?

Its a little moment that takes you away from that doe-eyed child, and despite the stream of whimsical visuals being thrust on screen, the adult in you empathizes with her character. Encanto grants such moments to almost every character, in a big ensemble. That’s part of what makes it an endearing family movie. There’s always a mild dose of reality, lurking underneath all the wild and crazy imagination.