Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021: A Series

I have no legitimate excuse for my failure to post here regularly in 2021. While I have been devoting most of my writing time to a new novel project and to scripts for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, I’ve always been able to carve out sufficient time in the past to keep my blog going, and I need to do the same now. The pandemic and the constant stream of depressing news, from mass shootings to insane battles over reproductive rights to ridiculously light sentences for confessed rapists, have done their bests to compromise my creative energy, and I can’t let that happen. So one of my top resolutions for the coming year is to keep up my posting, even if those posts are only a paragraph or two.

For the remainder of the year, I offer this series of short posts devoted to various stories I’ve loved in 2021, welcome antidotes to the disheartening meanness of the evening news and social media.

Encanto

Since this is the story I’ve taken in most recently, I begin with it. Its very existence is almost enough to gladden my heart, as it shows that Disney has not, as I’d feared, cast aside new animated projects in favor of live-action remakes of their older material. Those live-action remakes are still ongoing, alas, but at least they’ve taken the time to present us with this cinematic bonbon, full to the brim with magic, color, and life.

Too often, especially in family films, female protagonists in the movies fall into one of two camps: aspirational (super-competent badasses with an abundance of skills) or “relatable” (clumsy, awkward girls with few if any skills, who are Just Like You). To me these feel like opposite extremes of Wrong; the heroines I most enjoy getting to know are those whom, thanks to good writing and development, I can relate to and look up to, and Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist of Encanto, fits that bill. As the only member of her generation of the Madrigal family not gifted with a magical power, she speaks directly to those times in our lives when we feel “not good enough,” when we wonder if we’ll amount to as much as others around us and fear our wheels are spinning in place. As a woman in her early fifties who once thought I’d be much further along in my writing career when I reached this age, I can identify with the sorrow little Mirabel feels when her “magical door” disappears before her eyes, erasing (or so she thinks) her chance to be extraordinary like her sisters and cousins, and her ongoing anguish when, as a young woman, she finds herself pushed into the shadows of her family’s life while the magical ones dance in the light. But despite the bad hand she’s dealt (“I’m not fine,” she vents in song), Mirabel is no victim. She pushes ahead with reserves of creativity, resourcefulness, and determination to be the hero of her own life. She’s smart, funny, and kind, the trifecta of virtues that win a fictional character a place in my heart. It doesn’t hurt that she’s cute as a button, and Stephanie Beatriz’s vocal performance is delightful.

Yet my affection for this movie doesn’t begin and end with Mirabel. Other elements that win me:

  1. Encanto is one of the very few Disney films to center on the dynamics of a multi-generational family. Mirabel isn’t quite the only Disney heroine to have living parents; Rapunzel (Tangled), Judy Hopps (Zootopia), and Moana came before her. But unlike Rapunzel, who is stolen from her home, and Judy and Moana, who choose to leave home, Mirabel finds adventure within the home, and interacts with her parents and other relatives substantially throughout the film’s run time.
  2. In Luisa, Mirabel’s older sister, we see the first tall, brawny female character in the Disney canon who is not a villain. While I’m still waiting with bated breath for a female protagonist who isn’t tiny, this super-strong but gentle giantess is my favorite character next to Mirabel (and Mirabel’s uncle Bruno, but, well, we don’t talk about him.
  3. While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs for this film don’t quite reach the bar set by Moana, they’re still catchy as hell. Special props go to Luisa’s number, “Surface Pressure.”
  4. This film has no villain. Every one of its characters is a flawed, complicated person. How they work through their flaws and repair the fractures in their relationships forms the movie’s heart, making it something more unique, and (I think) more complex, than the usual battle of good vs. evil.