Learn Your Genre And How To Write Better From Movies (feat. Encanto)5 min read

While talking to some other folks about the last few days’ posts – where I talked about a bad example of using tropes, contrasting good and bad examples of how the overall structure changes the story, and adapting stories to different media – I ended up talking about Encanto, and realized that I – and apparently a lot of people – missed a huge central allegory in the film, and how the film is magical realism and definitely not a fantasy film.

Also – and to serve as spoiler space – the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone: An Ohio Horror Anthology ends on 28 January. The anthology is scheduled for October 2022 and will include twenty stories from me and other Ohio authors such as Lucy Snyder, Tim Waggoner, Megan Hart, Gary A. Braunbeck, and Gwendolyn Kiste. Check it out and back the antho at:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crackedskullproject1/that-which-cannot-be-undone-an-ohio-horror-anthology

Encanto pretty obviously speaks to generational pain, the immigrant experience, and – explicitly – the Columbian experience. But there is another allegory in the film that speaks more broadly to the Latin and South American experience – and the key to that is also the key that reveals why Encanto is an example of magical realism instead of fantasy.

Casita, the magical house from Encanto

I’m not talking about some conspiracy theory here, I’m talking about allegory. Because Encanto‘s house allegorically stands for Bolivia, Chile, or many of the other countries where powerful "benevolent" dictators (or families of dictators) have swept in and promised to make things better only to fall far short afterward.

Think about it. Through most of Encanto’s runtime, the Madrigals are very explicitly the source of the village’s wealth and well-being. Bruno stands in for the academia – quickly villanized for his inconvenient knowledge and forced into unwilling exile. Compliance with the goals of the state is rewarded, but individualism is frowned upon – as Isabela discovers. If you are not useful to the goals of the state, then you are pushed aside, particularly if you suggest anything is wrong with the state itself as Mirabel’s central story exemplifies. And when the ruling family falls – bringing the house (or country) down with it – the "regular" people are the ones who stand up to help rebuild.

This allegorical story is so sadly common in the 20th and 21st century in most of the Americas (and yes, it’s the fault of the United States waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too often.)

All this hinges on Casita being an allegory – and therefore, on whether Encanto falls on the side of magical realism or a fantasy. We can get part of way there by looking at the description of the literary genre:

Despite including certain magic elements, [magical realism] is generally considered to be a different genre from fantasy because magical realism uses a substantial amount of realistic detail and employs magical elements to make a point about reality, while fantasy stories are often separated from reality.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_realism

But I think we can simply compare Casita and this guy:

Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast
Or really, any of the “inanimate” characters in Beauty and the Beast. Even though we (eventually) learn that each of them is a transformed human, they are full-fledged characters with … well, identities. We would care if Lumiere burned away, and mourn him. Casita shares most characteristics with Lumiere: the house is clearly aware, able to understand and respond to language, and has a personality. And in the course of Encanto, the house dies. And, aside from hand-wringing about the loss of magic, nobody mentions, let alone mourns, the death of Casita as a character. There’s a lot of wailing about the loss of a home, about the loss of magic, but not about the death of the sentient being that was their home. This still bothers me as a genre writer and reader. Does Casita have a soul? Is it a personification of magic? There’s no worldbuilding done here at all. And for magical realism, there does not need to be. Again, magical realism is concerned with using the fantastic to make a point about reality. Casita exists as an allegory, and that’s all it needs to be. It stands for the country (as opposed to the government) in the allegory of the story. Nothing more need be done; going into the specific worldbuilding of how magic works in the world of Encanto would take away from the power of its (several) allegorical messages. But if this story were fantasy, leaving such ideas unturned would be a disservice to the story and to the reader as well. It would be Atreyu shrugging over Artax in the Swamps of Despair. Nobody caring about Fred Weasley. Or just marking “feed hyenas” off your to-do list after Mufasa fell from the cliff. (What do you think happened to the body, huh? CIRCLE OF LIFE.) This is not to say that Encanto is bad, or wrong. Just that the story knows what genre it is in, and therefore, what parts of the story deserve emphasis, and what parts are extraneous. By knowing what the expectations of the audience are for the type of story it is, the writers could focus on the important things and leave the rest to random guys writing on the internet. And you, as writers, should do the same. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone: An Ohio Horror Anthology ending on 28 January. Check it out and back the book at:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crackedskullproject1/that-which-cannot-be-undone-an-ohio-horror-anthology Featured Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

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