Disney has done many movies that put focus on characters but very rarely have they done it as intensively as with the films “Luca” and “Encanto.” In these two films, the plot takes a backseat to both striking visuals and character relationships. These relationships are tested in ways both personal and life-threatening in which the characters must contend not just with each other, but with themselves and their own faults. It’s touching and heartbreaking and gives us a sense of beauty that goes beyond the stellar animation presented on the screen.
“Luca,” released in the summer of 2021 and directed by Enrico Casarosa, tells the story of a curious sea-creature named Luca who yearns to explore the surface. This curiosity is further fueled by Alberto, another young sea creature who has been living by himself in an abandoned tower. Since they can transform into human shape when on dry land, the two boys are able to explore the Italian seaside town of Portorosso while the people living there are none the wiser.
In this film, we get a look at two amusing protagonists as well as the town they journey through. It is a simple setting shown in the most elaborate and colorful detail, like watching a water painting unfold on the screen. There’s no quest to embark on or evil villains to battle, save for an arrogant teenage biker. The conflict is ultimately between the two leads themselves. When Luca realizes there can be more to life than living by your own rules, a rift grows between him and the free-spirited Alberto. This is made worse by the risk of being discovered as sea-dwelling monsters. The film’s resolution seemed a bit too easy, considering how hostile the town appeared toward what lurks beneath the waters. But we still get a charming message about the everlasting bonds of friendship that tie us together, wherever we are.
The second film, “Encanto,” directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard, is a little different. Here the focus is not on friendship, but family. In a Colombian settlement in the mountains, a community is protected by a magical force wielded by a family. The family’s matriarch, Alma Madrigal, ensures their magical realm, their “Encanto,” remains strong and well-protected. Her children and grandchildren have all been gifted with magical abilities, save for a girl named Mirabel who has no magic. Mirabel, the film’s main protagonist, retains optimism despite having been dealt an unlucky hand by fate.
The interactions between Mirabel and the rest of her family are thoroughly explored through jaw-dropping animation and catchy tunes composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, particularly Mirabel’s troubled relationships with her eldest sister Isabela and her grandmother Alma, who has seemingly put all the family’s hopes on Isabela while completely disregarding Mirabel. The story is touching, and a lot more elaborate than the down-to-earth feel of “Luca.” But, like “Luca,” it does a lot with a little. You almost forget that the setting is completely grounded in one place. While I missed learning more about how the magic came to be, it was enough just to see it in action and the impact it has on the story and characters.
It all goes to show that beauty is more than what we see on the outside. Both films are gorgeously animated, but there is a deeper beauty that resides beneath them. What we get is a reminder that any experience, no matter how mundane, can become a great adventure. And there can be strong conflict without an evil villain or antagonist to bring the protagonists together. In these films, overcoming differences is something the characters must achieve on their own. They paint portraits of realism that transcend the fantastical concepts. And that is where the beauty in the films truly lies.