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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The TikTok-Tailored Terpsichorean Trauma of 'Encanto'

Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical, would’ve been a perfect little movie, had two pressures not been exerted on it. The first is the pressure to end happiestly. Not happily, mind you; happy endings are acceptable. The happiest ending, never acceptable, is one in which every last disappointment or injustice or regret is, at the very last moment, vanquished as if by—if not literally by—magic, robbing the audience of the opportunity to sit with the beautiful, aching feelings they’d been preparing to sit with the whole time. Alas, the pressure to end happiestly is so totalizing in American animation that to complain about it now, in the 21st century, feels both dweeby and absurd. Far more sophisticated, I think, to critique the second, less-talked-about pressure faced by a poor film like Encanto, the story of a magical Colombian family losing its magic: the pressure, specifically on its characters, to dance.

Yes, dance. As in, move their bodies in time to music, often for no better reason than that they can. In “Surface Pressure,” Encanto’s catchiest tune, one of the Madrigal sisters, Luisa, sings about the pressure—so much pressure—to be strong for the whole family. She means this both physically and emotionally, as Luisa’s superpower is superstrength, and also because Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t a subtle lyricist. “Pressure like a grip, grip, grip and it won’t let go, whoa,” she sings. “Pressure like a tick, tick, tick ’til it’s ready to blow, whoa.” All the while, this large adult woman is popping and locking like some overeager tween in front of a bedroom mirror. “This looks like a TikTok dance,” a friend said to me as we watched. Later that night, she sent me a TikTok—of a real-life tween performing the selfsame routine.

Of course, this was probably exactly what Disney was hoping for, in the planning stages of the scene: Give the big sad lady some sexy body rolls, set it to earwormy therapy-speak, and watch the free publicity roll in. Crass whatever the circumstances, but in the context of animated entertainment? It’s kind of disgusting.

Of the major arts, dance is the only one that demands actual strength. Its entire appeal, in fact, turns on the contortions of the human body, the sweat and risk and triumph of it: What is that move? How does she bend like that? Will he fall out of rhythm? Characters in live-action musicals dance all the time, and should; it’s part of the stylized storytelling. Computer-generated cartoons are free to dance too, but when they do, there’s a hyperawareness of their artificial movements, their reason, diegetic or otherwise, for dancing—all the more so when those movements seem to be in the service of a social media strategy. The dips and swivels begin to feel overprogrammed, uncanny, pixels pliéing and pirouetting with perfect, perturbing precision. At its worst, it’s an insult to the physicality of the form.

So it’s less fun to watch. It’s also, so much of the time, embarrassing. When Luisa breaks into dance midway through a movie in which she otherwise demonstrates no active interest in the performing arts, or when a second Madrigal sister sings and shimmies to Encanto’s other TikTok-ready hit, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” one senses not only Disney’s hope that viewers adopt these moves as their own, but also the corporation’s renunciation, many years in the making, of animation as a genre unto itself. No longer can a film like Encanto exist in isolation; instead, it must court crossover possibilities of every kind, from shows on ice and theme park rides to, most shamelessly of all, Broadway musicals.

Blame Frozen. Before it came out in 2013, the difference between a Broadway musical and a Disney musical was at least debatable. Sure, classics like Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Mermaid all ended up on Broadway, roughly in that descending order of quality, but none of those movies were created in the hope of being theatricalized. For one thing, there was very little random, cringey dancing; for another, the singing was more contained, less showy. That changed the day Idina Menzel, she of Rent’s and Wicked’s gravity-defying vocals, was cast in Frozen, belting Disney into its full-blown show-tunes era. Since then, movies like Moana, Coco, Frozen II, and now Encanto have all felt less like animations and more like stage productions, ready at a moment’s notice to be adapted for a literal stage. In 2018, Frozen debuted on Broadway. Does the show attract newer, younger crowds to the struggling industry? Probably. Is that enough of a reason to justify an ouroboros of platform-agnostic IP homogenizing and superficializing our entertainment beyond any hope of artistry? Probably not.

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If everything is made to be made into something else, nothing can excel at being itself—the story of our times. And Encanto had so much potential. Somewhere inside it is a miraculous, sensitive film about heritage and renewal, sadly swallowed up by corporate pressures to be more than that, and less. Disney animation in the modern era is a means, not an end, and it starts with all those out-of-sync, out-of-touch moments of terpsichorean trauma perpetrated on confused, impressionable audiences. Nothing is safe, not even the endings. Think about it: If cartoons weren’t required to shake their digital booties to song, there’d be less pressure to go out on happiestly-ever-afters. Feeling actual feelings, the characters wouldn’t have anything to dance about.


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