Disney’s Encanto Misses Opportunity to Explore Healing Family Wounds
Producers could have spent a little more time on the harrowing adventure of learning to heal
Encanto, the latest animated release from Disney, is many things; vibrant, beautiful, visually engaging, and filled with snappy, singable songs and a healthy dose of whimsy. Like Moana, audiences see underrepresented faces, skin tones, hairstyles, and cultural traditions positively. Encanto also stresses the importance of family and community service. However, the movie misses a golden opportunity to model a healthy response to family trauma and instead opts for the simplistic sitcom exit where the perpetrator of the trauma offers an apology, EVERYTHING is suddenly right with the world, and all is forgiven.
SPOILER ALERT! READING PAST THIS POINT WILL TELL YOU WAY TOO MUCH ABOUT ENCANTO’S PLOT.
Now that the warnings are out of the way let’s jump into the plot. As with many movies in the Disney canon, we start with a fun, up-tempo singing number introducing the audience to a vibrant 15-year-old girl. She educates the children in the village about the wonders of her magical family, the Madrigals. She recounts the various magical talents given to each of her family members with joy and excitement, listing the many things that the Madrigals do for the surrounding community. When asked about her powers, she quickly deflects and re-lists her family’s talents to distract from the truth that she does not have a magical ability. There is another layer to Mirabel’s deflection in that her family’s powers are not inherent but are gifted to them by an enchanted candle. For unknown reasons, the candle declined or failed to give a magical talent to Mirabel when she came of age. It is immediately apparent that Mirabel’s optimism and family pride cover an underlying feeling of insufficiency. This feeling is implicitly reinforced by the rest of the family through various comments and actions but none more so than the attitude displayed by Mirabel’s grandmother Abuelo Alma, the family matriarch.
At this point in the movie, the family is anxiously preparing for Mirabel’s cousin Antonio’s participation in the magic candle gifting ceremony. The family holds its collective breathe that the candle will bestow a talent on Antonio after Mirabel’s failed ceremony. No one is more fearful of failure than Abeulo Alma, who intends to ensure everything is perfect so that the family will again receive the candle’s blessing. One can’t help but sense from her tone and demeanor that Abeulo Alma isn’t entirely sure that Mirabel isn’t somehow responsible for her own magical calamity. To the Madrigal’s relief, the ceremony goes off without a hitch, and Antonio is given the power of speech with animals. All seems well till Mirabel has a vision in which she sees the house falling apart and the candle sputtering out. No one else sees the vision or admits to seeing it (a later scene alludes to Abuelo Alma having knowledge of the situation). Abuelo and the family blame Mirabel for interrupting Antonio’s party because she is jealous. Mirabel is chastised, and the ceremony attendees are encouraged to return to the party and have a good time.
Alarmed, Mirabel sets out to discover why she had the vision of the crumbling house and how she can stop it from coming to pass. From here on out, the Madrigal family façade is pulled back to reveal many broken people, trapped in roles and responsibilities that leave them anxious, lonely, and unhappy. Each of the main characters tries to please Abeulo Alma and fulfill her concept of family functionality and service to the magical candle or miracle as she calls it.
The damage inflicted on the family by Abeulo Alma is tremendous. Her son Bruno, who has visions of the future, pretends to leave the house because he believes his talent is useless and even detrimental to the family and the community. He discovers that people only want to know their future when good things are forecast to happen. Instead of leaving, Bruno hides in the house’s walls, living a ghost-like existence with the rats and peering in on family life from behind paintings and plants. Bruno yearns for family acceptance. In perhaps one of the saddest parts of the movie, we see Mirabel discover a tiny table made-up to look like the big family table in the dining room, with Bruno having a place there. Bruno can look through a slit in a painting in the dining room from his tiny seat and vicariously participate in family meals he does not feel worthy or welcome to attend. Adding insult to injury, various family members respond to Mirabel’s questions about Bruno with a sad and contemptuous little ditty, “We don’t talk about Bruno …No…No… No…” It is unclear if Bruno is not discussed because Abuelo Alma has forbidden it or because he is a family disgrace or considered bad luck, but there is little empathy for him. Bruno faces the fate of many truth-tellers and prophets, rejection. Even in hiding, he continues to serve the family by fixing the cracks in the walls of the magical house.
Bruno can look through a slit in a painting in the dining room from his tiny seat and vicariously participate in family meals he does not feel worthy or welcome to attend.
As Mirabel’s investigation continues, she discovers that her sister Luisa is so wracked with anxiety about not living up to Abuelo’s standards and expectations that her Herculean strength ebbs. She literally sings, “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service,” despite all the fantastic things she accomplishes. Her song also reveals that she feels powerless to speak to anyone in the family about her concerns. Mirabel’s other sister, Isabella, is pressured to conform to a series of ideals that she neither constructed nor can sustain. To serve the family and the miracle, she must be someone she is not and pursue a romance with a man she does not love. When Mirabel’s prodding and pushing convince Isabella to let her true self out, she comes alive. Still, she faces immediate censure from Abuelo Alma and other family members. The cracking and crumbling of the magic house is an excellent metaphor for the family’s personal challenges. It neatly depicts how the village sees the Madrigal family through a narrow, highly curated lens that hides problems and difficulties.
With Bruno’s assistance, Mirabel reexamines an old prophecy involving her and the house. She mistakenly concludes that she must repair her relationship with her sister Isabella. Her attempts at outreach lead to Isabella’s awakening but result in the destruction of the house and the snuffing of the magic candle. The apparent fulfillment of the prophecy of Mirabel destroying the magic compels Mirabel to run away towards the river. It is at the river, the place where her grandfather sacrificed himself to save his family and where the miracle occurred, that Abuelo Alma and Mirabel confront each other. Mirabel gains an understanding of her grandmother’s trauma, and Abuela Alma acknowledges the trauma she has caused. With a hug, love is rekindled, Abuelo Alma, Bruno, and Mirabel return to the remains of the house, and joy ensues. The villagers, along with the entire Madrigal family, rebuild the house, and then the magic returns, supposedly more robust than ever.
And this is the point where Disney could have done a great service to families dealing with interpersonal difficulties. While hugs, acknowledgment, and forgiveness are significant pieces of recovery and rebuilding relationships, these actions are not a panacea. Abuelo Alma’s untreated trauma stemming from the death of her husband and her self-imposed role as the sole protector of the family and the miracle, isolates her and leads her to perpetuate her trauma through the family. I realize that a training montage of years of therapy does not make for good storytelling, but it would have been nice to have scenes with Abuelo Alma and each of the affected parties where they had a dialogue and individual acknowledgment. At the very least, Bruno deserved some additional attention. Perhaps the producers could have used a short time shift forward to show characters employing coping techniques like meditation or group work to help them recover. Certainly, more was needed than a scene with donkeys acting as waiters for a Luisa stretched out in a hammock. The rebuilding of the house by hand, rather than magic, might serve as a metaphor for that work, but it occurs so quickly and apparently seamlessly that the impact is lost and reinforces the idea that all that was needed was a hug and “I’m sorry.”
So many families have complex interpersonal relationships. It would have been nice for Disney and Encanto’s producers to have spent a little more time on the harrowing adventure of learning to heal rather than simply uncovering the problems.
Encanto is currently streaming on Disney Plus.