After weeks of teasing, advertising and hinting, the Disney Channel event, Elena and the Secret of Avalor finally hit the screen last night and wow is there a lot to talk about. Unlike the typical 20 minute episodes we’re accustomed to, this one clocked in at an hour and had all sorts of backstory for several characters along with a crossover from creator Craig Gerber’s other Disney show, Sofia the First. At the heart of this event was the origin of Elena’s character and how she became the princess we know and love today. If you haven’t seen The Secret of Avalor yet, know that I will be going in depth and definitely spoiling it, so make sure to check out the episode before reading here, unless you don’t mind a few reveals. Still here? Alright, let’s jump in.
I was introduced to Elena and this world with Elena of Avalor so I knew little to nothing about Sofia going into this episode. That meant doing a little research. Premiering almost exactly 4 years ago, in November of 2012, Sofia the First tells the tale of a young girl who becomes princess when her mother marries the King. She must quickly learn to be part of the royal family, always learning that what’s inside is what really counts. Particularly interesting is the Amulet of Avalor, which she wears around her neck. This amulet is pretty special as it gives her special powers that include shrinking and talking to animals. At 8 years old, she’s a pretty powerful little character.
At the start of the Secret of Avalor, Sofia is tasked by the great wizard Alacazar, who comes to her from a book, to go a free Elena, the princess of Avalor who needs her help. Sofia seems to think that Elena is reaching out to her through vivid day dreams. Alacazar warns of the threat of Shuriki though, the evil sorceress who took over Avalor, killed Elena’s parents and trapped Elena in the amulet in the first place. Sofia has a lot on her hands. Luckily her family seems to be incredibly gullible and also is looking for a new place to visit and make trade with. Avalor it is!
As an Elena fan, one of the first things I noticed was the different art style. Almost all of the backgrounds appear to have been hand painted and some of the character models have a different look. All the textures have a slightly glossier feel. This isn’t a bad thing, but it was a bit jarring at first. Take the painted backdrops. They are utterly gorgeous, but given that I was used to Elena’s digitally rendered backdrops, it took a little getting used to. It turns out that The Secret of Avalor was actually animated by the team behind Sofia the First, making it look much more in the style of that show. Given that Sofia has been around a lot longer, this actually makes a lot of sense. By creating this story in a style those fans know and love, it gives a nice easy transition to be able to get to know the new girl in town, Elena. For Elena fans, well, we get to try something new on for size and regardless of the difference in animation style, the show is still brimming with beauty and quality.
Seeing Elena’s backstory is all kinds of fun, but there is also a lot here to do with other characters. I talk a lot about Esteban here and this movie really confirms for me that he is the most complex character in the show. He wants power, which makes him far from perfect, but he also wants to care for his family. He’s often torn between this selfish agenda and a selfless need to do what’s right for his family. It seems pretty bad that he’s helping Shuriki, and in fact, he helped her take over Avalor. Sure he wanted power out of the deal, but he also wanted his family to be safe. He’s interesting as a character because regardless of how flawed he is, you always want him to make the right choice and when he finally does make that choice, it feels that much more rewarding. It’s also great to see the start of Mateo’s magic career as he takes up his grandfather’s magic books and begins to learn.
Of course, we need to talk about Elena in this movie, because I believe something amazingly subtle was done with her character. I always talk about how Elena is an ask first, come up with a plan kind of gal. That’s what makes her so special. She always wants to find the best solution for everyone, and she always wants to get help from her friends and family to do it. Not only do we get to see Elena come out of the amulet here, but we also get to see her learn the very important skills we know her for in her show. Elena’s initial plan is very anti-Elena. She storms the castle, on her own, wand blazing, with no real plan. Over the course of this film, we get to see her grow and learn that she isn’t alone anymore and she doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of people that want to help her and, in fact, the whole city has her back. It’s a great way of building up the character we love and seeing exactly why she has that kind of mentality. Elena’s like all of us. She’s learning, day by day, how to work with others for the best possibly solution.
Jane Fonda plays a fantastic villain. We never quite get her backstory, which I would love to see, but we really learn to dislike her early on. She hates music and dancing and jaquins. I mean, seriously, who hates jaquins? She’s pretty evil, and bares a lot of similarities to Mother Gothel from Rapunzel. I like that her need to appear young spreads to how she runs the kingdom. She dislikes tradition and the old ways and only wants to deal in new things and renovations. This makes her a perfect antagonist to Elena who constantly tries to learn from the old traditions to find solutions for the current day. Avalor has a pretty deep mythology from what we’ve seen and it makes sense that as Shuriki fights against this past, the natural order would push against her.
There’s some excellent music in this episode which is sure to have kids and adults humming along for a while. I have to say that Elena’s music is incredibly catchy and my partner and I have a bad habit of humming the Elena theme song everywhere we go. While all of the music in this movie was great, and it was good to get more than one song, My Time, sung by Elena, is easily the best song of the show so far. It’s just so empowering and epic. It’s up there with the likes of Let It Go and Reflections in the way it made me feel goosebumps as it built. And when the entire town started to sing it, I really got a sense of how endearing Elena is as a leader to them. It’s as if, from that moment on, they will be behind her, regardless of what befalls the kingdom.
I am so excited to see what happens next for Elena, Sofia and Shuriki, because let’s face it, she is not done yet. The question was left for Sofia fans as to what her show will be like now that her amulet isn’t housing a trapped princess, as well as when Shuriki will come back for revenge. These little cliffhangers were enough to leave me wanting more, but did well not to detract from the movie itself. Then again, I really thought Shuriki was going to jump out of the waterfall at the end and scream “GOTCHA!” but I suppose that will have to wait for another day.
When all the analysis is said and done, I am happy to report that I loved The Secret of Avalor. It fulfilled the promise of being an ‘event.’ It was exciting from start to finish and really gave us a grasp of how ALL the characters got to where they are now in Elena. I think an argument could be made that this should have been the pilot but I’m glad it wasn’t. After all, getting to see these characters, especially Elena, grow into who we know them as was a big part of the fun. Seeing how much Elena has grown in just a season of episodes was deeply rewarding and was a good reminder that sometimes we all need someone to let us know we aren’t alone in the world.
I also have to applaud the creators for never making me feel lost simply because I had never seen Sofia. She was a distinct character from scene one and I quickly felt as though I’d known her for years. If I look at The Secret of Avalor as an Elena episode, I would say it was easily one of the best yet, and while I’m excited to get back to the fantastic animation work of the Elena team, I’m happy to report that the Sofia team gave her a great backstory full of wonderful action, music and character growth.