First, though, both are supernaturally beautiful films. Both attempt to do honor and homage to the culture from which the stories emerge. Both are musicals and attempt codify their themes with music—themes that without the music might be taken as childish or simplistic.
The themes, themselves, are neither but music engages our emotions before reason has a chance to dismiss them. This enables stories to pierce our heart. Thus, we can think about them more clearly.
There will be spoilers.
Both films are mythical fantasies. By this, I mean they are fantasies where the magic derives from an underlying cultural significance. In Moana, this comes from Polynesian culture. In Encanto, the cultural matrix comes from Colombia but also seems to engage most of Latin America. I saw resonances to stories I’d heard from Ecuador, Mexico, and Guatemala.
Encanto takes place in essentially modern times. While the environment doesn’t have a lot of modern trappings—transportation is by mule, donkey, or horse, for example—the clothes, tools, layout all look modern. People use hammers and saws. Archaic, fantasy modern, to be sure, but modern none the less. The fundamental conflicts in Encanto are familial: people in the family do not feel seen by others in the family, feel pressed into roles that do not represent their authentic self, and can only pursue their gifts within the context and boundaries set by the family. The gifts are magical but the gifts could be seen as symbolic of any human potential.
Given that Encanto is modern, there would have had to be considerable torquing of the story to introduce any true mythological mechanisms—like some found mythology stories like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, where there is an entire magical world hidden inside modern costume. The makers of Encanto wisely just tossed that idea into the dustbin. The magic is what it is because it derives from family and sacrifice. Any mythological analyses are left to the devices of the intelligent viewer.
Encanto centers on the Pedro and Alma Madrigal and their triplets—along with their companion townfolk—that flee a vague persecution to a remote mountain valley. Pedro sacrifices himself through unexplained magical means to protect the valley from their persecutors. From this sacrifice, the three children gain magical gifts. These magical gifts propagate down through the next generation with the exception of the film’s protagonist, Mirabel. Each child’s magical gift is symbolized by the illumination of the door to their room. When the time comes for the gift to be bestowed, the door glows and the gift is given. When this happened to Mirabel, the door disappears: Mirabel has no gift.
The film proceeds almost like a detective story. Mirabel can see degradation of the magic when no one else can. Her uncle, Bruno, left years ago. He’d had the gift of prophecy but disappeared. People remember his prophecies being universally bad. When Mirabel investigates beyond his door, she finds a shattered glass image that shows the breaking of the magic with her involvement. Then, she talks to her siblings and aunts, finding in each case, flaws in the way each is treated according to their gifts.
Eventually, the source of the problem is shown to be the familial restrictions on the usage of the gifts and the way the gifted must behave, forcing each member of the family to struggle for an authentic life.
Moana hearkens back to deep Polynesian time. During research to develop the story, John Musker and Ron Clements were intrigued by the mystery of how Polynesians colonized throughout the Pacific for a while and then stopped about the time Samoa was settled. Travel restarted about a thousand years later. This odd stutter suggested to Musker and Clements a mythological approach to the story: a people who had lost an ability and then regained it.
This puts Moana smack into deep fantasy or science fiction. The peoples described in Moana are not modern Polynesians. They are the ancestors that from their regained ability became modern Polynesians. Placing this story in the past like that, at a point of momentous change, allows the introduction of mythological mechanisms denied in Encanto: symbolic magic, gods, and demigods.
Moana lives on the island of Motunui. People do not venture beyond the reef. They have everything they need on the island: crops, coconuts, pigs, and fish. Moana loves her island. She loves her family. She is the daughter of the chief being groomed to be the next leader—something she will clearly be good at.
However, she longs to voyage across the sea. It calls to her—both spiritually and magically. The sea is a conscious entity that has chosen Moana for some task. She feels compelled through the love of her family and place to follow the path set out for her even though that leads to an inauthentic life. She cannot help be feel what is missing in her life would be completed by the sea.
The dark side of the story is that the demigod Maui who had done many wonderful things for Moana’s people attempted to steal the heart of the nature goddess Te Fiti. He succeeded. But Te Fiti disintegrated and Maui was attacked by Te Kā a volcano demon. He lost the heart and his magical fishhook and was never heard from again. Left behind is the darkness which eventually will infect all islands but has so far left Motunui alone.
Moana grows up in the conflict between her love for home and place and her true heart, the sea. Whenever she attempts to follow her heart, she is blocked. When the darkness finally comes to Motunui, she is the first to say they must go beyond the island but is rebuffed. Her Grandmother sends her to a cave where the voyager ships of the ancient islanders have been hidden, revealing her people’s secret: they were once voyagers. She again presents this as proof they must go beyond the island but is, again, rebuffed. Her Grandmother takes sick and, as she dies, sends Moana to find Maui, regain the heart, and restore their people to their voyager origins.
The rest of the story involves exactly that: finding Maui, gaining trust between them, fighting Te Kā, then discovering that Te Kā is really Te Fiti without her heart. The heart is restored, the darkness lifted, and Moana returns to her people showing them a new way. Her people are voyagers once again.
These stories have a lot in common. Moana and Mirabel are both constrained by family expectations. Both must overcome these expectations to expunge the rot at the heart of the problem. Both have estranged magical beings that must be brought in from the cold: Maui in Moana and Bruno in Encanto—that are necessary for the emotional resolution. Both succeed in the adventure by returning to the origin of the problem—Te Fiti’s island in Moana, the river of Pedro’s sacrifice in Encanto. They’re not exactly “the magic was in you all along” sort of stories but you can see them from here.
However, there are some very stark differences and I think those differences make Encanto a fundamentally weaker film than Moana.
As I said, Moana is set squarely in high mythology. This allows symbolic redemption in addition to personal redemption. In Encanto, redemption is rendered by Mirabel first confronting Alma with how she has restrained the family and then bringing her to the river of Pedro’s sacrifice, where Alma meets Pedro again. This allows Alma to open herself and in so doing release the rest of the family to follow their own destiny.
In Moana, Maui is brought from being selfish to aiding the effort and Te Fiti’s heart is restored, eliminating the darkness and allowing Moana to return to Motunui to lead her people to their destinies as voyagers.
The fundamental difference between them lies in the result. In Moana, the attempt to change results in broad cultural change deriving from people living authentic lives. In Encanto, the results are living authentic lives but the broader cultural phenomena is just a return to status quo. I.e., no net change in the world. From the point of view of the villagers beyond the family there is almost no change. A fuller relationship with the magical family but not much more.
This derives, I think, not so much from the scope difference between the two films—Encanto is what I call a small story and Moana is a large story. I like both—as it is a character difference between Moana and Mirabel. Moana from the very beginning is called by something. Called to be more than she is. Called to a love that she cannot fulfill on Motunui. Mirabel begins her journey discontented with her circumstance at not being a full member of the family but has no broader calling than that. She has no higher goal. Thus, the best she can hope for is a better circumstance.
In point of fact, no one in Encanto wants more than a nice village life where everybody is properly fulfilled in local role. They don’t really want anything different. They just want to feel better about it.
(With the possible exception of Isabela who seems to have a budding artist in her. But the film doesn’t give her enough air time to make much of it. An interesting different take on Encanto would be to eliminate Mirabel entirely and give the experience over to Isabela. Instead of a non-magical girl, it’s a magical girl being forced to use her gifts in a way that doesn’t fulfill her. She has to go through the journey. Instead of the outsider changing things, it’s the insider changing things. Instead of the discounted person shaking things up, it’s the person on the pedestal.)
Human beings are hypercooperative and hypercompetitive. We are both shared beings and individuals. The beauty of Moana is it shows Moana in both lights. As someone who loves her shared experience and her individual destiny. As someone who wants to bring both human aspects to her people.
Mirabel delights in her community and family and wants to heal them but her ambition goes no farther than that. The isolated mountain village is enough.
Perhaps this is the American in me, but I think having a higher goal in addition to community and family is a better state of being. Striving to be a better painter, or sculptor, or writer, is attempting to extract from the shared experience something singular that can then be given away. It is, in and of itself, a higher goal. A higher calling. Family is important. Community is important. I know that. These are aspirations common to everyone. But they are only part of our humanity. The other part is taking those common aspirations and distilling them into something singular.
In effect, Moana has a small story embedded in the large one. Like Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel, the little wheel turns the larger story. Because of these two disparate components linked together, Moana has a potential depth that is denied Encanto. For example, there’s a point in Moana where she attempts to leave the island to follow her heart and is defeated. The violence of the ocean drives her back. It is not enough to just follow your heart. She only succeeds in leaving the island when she is both following her heart and trying to help her people.
I have to say this reminded me of Parzifal. Parzifal becomes a superlative knight—fulfilling the goal of the world but not his character. In this mode, he attempts the adventure of the Grail and fails. It is insufficient, to pursue the adventure in service to the community only. He has to pursue the adventure by virtue of his character as well. Only with both in concert—worldly accomplishment and worthy character—can he succeed in becoming the Grail King.
This is exactly what happens in Moana. Every time she attempts the adventure for solely her spiritual love, she fails. Every time she attempts the adventure solely for her community, she fails. Her attempt to save her island is what brings her into the final conflict. But it is her character that determines how to succeed at it. Both are necessary.