by Dechen Ballantine Kaplan
The first time I saw Encanto was with my family. We all gathered ourselves in the living room, a bowl of popcorn, or was it two? All squished together on our gray couch, excited for the newest Disney film. The animation was just as magical, inspiring, and heartwarming as any of us expected it to be.
After about a week had passed, I remember scrolling through Instagram, procrastinating as usual. A certain video caught my eye. It was a little girl, around the age of 5 or 6, and she was jumping in a shirt. She had that beautiful tan, earthy skin, her eyes were all big and sparkly and she had round glasses. Her hair was in loose coils and bouncing as she jumped. Behind her, was Mirabel, singing the first song in Encanto, on a big TV screen.
“Look! It’s me! I’m on TV!” The girl was shouting in delight, pointing her finger at the screen where Mirabel was singing about her beloved family. This one video caught my eye because this young girl was delighted to see someone like her on-screen, which got me to think about representation in Disney and why representation is so important for young children.
Let’s take a look at the Disney Animation timeline. It is clear that Disney has been trying to expand its horizon by including more diverse characters and cultures in their animation in more recent years, but if we go back to the 20th century, Disney’s first animation movie to star a person of color was The Jungle Book which was released in 1967, with all white voice actors, sadly, even though the story took place in India. Then, Aladdin was released in 1992. The problem with Aladdin was that the voice actors were white, except for the singing voice of Jasmine who was played by Lea Salonga.
The next movie to depict a POC character was Pocahontas in 1995. What’s different about the film this time and what makes it better than Aladdin production-wise is that the voice actors of the characters who were Native American were also Native American. Good job Disney, you’re making progress! After that, the movie starring a Chinese warrior, Mulan was released in 1998. Mulan’s voice actor was played by Ming-Na Wen who is a Chinese American actress. Ending the 20th-century timeline, we move into the 21st century. In the year 2000, The Emperor’s New Groove was released, a movie that was set in the ancient Incan empire. In 2002, Lilo and Stitch were released, the main characters played by white voice actors. Princess and the Frog, the first Black Disney royals was released in 2009 with a pretty diverse cast. Moana, one of the biggest Disney hits, came out in 2016. Coco, an endearing movie about a Mexican boy who loves music came out in 2017. Soul was released in 2020, Raya and the Last Dragon was released in 2021, and lastly, Encanto was released in 2021 too.
All of this data seems like a lot of information, so let’s break it down and look at the general trend. In the 20th century, 4 movies starred characters of color. Out of the four, only 2 of the movies had voice actors that ethnically or rationally corresponded with the characters on screen. In the 21st century, 7 movies were made starring POC characters. 5 out of those 7 movies had voice actors that ethnically or rationally corresponded with the characters on screen. Now that’s a huge improvement in diversifying the characters! In the 20th century, children that identify as POC really only had 4 movies from Disney to see themselves in, and now there are 7!
What Encanto does so well is the representation; If a little five-year-old sees themselves in the characters and gets excited about it, that just shows how meaningful representation is, especially for the younger children. For them it’s not only about seeing themselves, it’s about the magic. The magic of believing what they see. If a Black girl never sees the portrayal of Black women being the hero of a story, she will never even think of that as a possibility. If the history of our society is based on the discrimination of POC, then how can these young kids be empowered when all they’ve faced and known is this annoying knowledge that they are not equal. Even at a young age, even if children don’t understand the full idea of racism, they still feel the effects of it. Representation in children's movies not only shows children the possibilities but also boosts their confidence in themselves as a person of color. It tells them that society is changing and becoming more accepting. Children who aren’t represented in movies and mainstream media may feel alone and on their own as if no one is supporting them. They may feel uncertain of the world they live in and even a bit disappointed and angry. They may wonder, “Why me? Why can’t people like me be on the screens?”
The impact of representation in children's movies is crucial for children. they are greatly affected negatively by the lack of representation and positively affected by the addition of representation in the media. What Encanto does so well is showing the culture instead of just making the characters POC. They show the culture of those characters through the colors, music, food, and even how certain characters acted and talked.
I’m so glad to see Disney grow into a more open-minded company. It is truly amazing to see the world grow and to watch how much of an impact this has on millions of little hearts. I hope to see more movies with characters as vibrant as the ones in Encanto. It is a perfect movie for both children and adults as they deal with very important topics. It will make you laugh and cry and appreciate the beauty of being different and the differences in each other. Encanto was a masterpiece and it is a must-see for everyone who hasn’t seen it!