As someone who had to start wearing glasses at the age of eight after I referred to subtitles as “the blurry white colors at the bottom of the screen”, watching Mirabel Madrigal, the heroine of the 2021 Disney animated musical comedy, Encanto, wearing her round, impossible-to-miss, lime-green spectacles as she saves her family and the village they live in felt like I was giving my younger self a hug.
Encanto, directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith, with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, begins as the simple story of Mirabel who is learning to find her place as the only non-magical member in her wildly magical family: her eldest sister, Isabella, can grow and shape flowers and plants; her second-oldest sister, Luisa, is exceptionally strong and is frequently seen carrying no fewer than two donkeys; her younger cousin Antonio can speak to animals; her mother Julieta heals people with her food; and many more. It is only Mirabel who doesn’t have magic, who feels stuck on the outskirts of a family, constantly feeling the need to compensate for her lack of magic.
As the plot progresses, Mirabel’s journey of self-love and acceptance is weaved with nuance and care into a greater tapestry about generational trauma, its origin and the many ways it manifests itself within each generation. Encanto, with its vibrant characters, bright, warm colors, catchy songs — “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is still stuck in my head — and a magical house that communicates by opening doors and windows, may seem like a happy-go-lucky movie about a slightly crazy and powerfully magical family. And it is. But it is also a movie about a displaced community, the necessity of finding strength in familial bonds when beginning anew and the renewed vigor with which a people begin to make and protect their new homes. Most importantly, it is about the pressures this places on members of said community. Encanto touched upon generational trauma and the conditional love held within families with such sensitivity that I, again, wished my younger self could have seen this on screen.
Abuela, Mirabel’s grandmother, is the matriarch of the family and as such is often seen in conflict with Mirabel given their opposing views on how best to protect their family. It would have been easy to fall into the overused plot hole of pitting a grandmother against a granddaughter by basing their entire conflict on the generational difference between them. Abuela could so easily have been painted as the villain of the story, as an uncompromising lady whose love for her family members is contingent on how well they contribute to the family, with the boundaries of said contribution already being predetermined. Encanto refuses to do this. Instead it sympathizes with Abuela, and through a careful and sensitive narration of her heartbreaking past, we come to understand why she chooses to prioritize her life as she does now. It does not excuse her behavior but it allows for a more humane explanation of the character’s strengths and weaknesses.
In a flashback at the very beginning of the movie, we learn that Alma had to flee with her husband Pedro, and their newborn triplets (one of whom is Mirabel’s mother), when unnamed soldiers invaded their village. The villagers were however unable to escape the soldiers and Pedro sacrificed himself in order to save his family and community. It is at this moment that the candle Pedro had given Alma becomes magical, burns with an eternal flame, beats back the soldiers and raises mountains from the land which now house their new village, Encanto. And ever since then, every Madrigal child who is born is blessed with a magical gift on their fifth birthday — that is, of course, until Mirabel.
It comes as no surprise that protecting a blessing that was born out of violence and sacrifice requires its own form of both, and the Madrigal family is no exception. One of the most relatable songs in Encanto was Luisa’s “Surface Pressure”, sung by Jessica Darrow. Luisa’s magical gift is strength, and the artistic decision to bless a daughter of the Madrigal family with strength symbolizes the heavy burdens we place on our daughters, and the way in which their resilience to bearing this generational weight is seen as a necessity. Even Isabela’s song, “What Else Can I Do?”, sung by Diane Guerroro as Isabela and Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel, captures the suffocating pressures placed on Isabela in terms of her appearance, her abilities and her future. The Madrigals were blessed, but with each generation, the blessing slowly turns into a curse as duty towards one’s family and community slowly supersedes one’s own desires.
Together, Isabela and Luisa captured various aspects of my childhood growing up as the eldest daughter of a family from Sri Lanka. To see women of color understanding the limitations placed on their minds and bodies by their loved ones, to see them pushing against these constraints and daring to dream beyond filial duty but still remaining a member of their family was nothing short of revolutionary. The movie is set in Colombia, with its music, food and embroidery forming the backdrop of each scene and each relationship. But the lack of specific historic references — we still don’t know who exactly invaded Abuela’s old village — allows for a more pan-Latin experience when watching the film, and one which also easily connects with many of us from the Global South.
The range of skin tones, from light to dark, and hairstyles, from curly to straight, featured in Encanto makes for an impressively diverse set of characters, and according to many critics, a more accurate representation of the Latinx community. The decision to draw Luisa Madrigal with muscles, to show her strength in a physical form that is associated more often with traditional representations of masculinity also deserves praise, for Luisa is never seen to be conscious of or apologetic for her physical appearance.
The nuanced approach Encanto used to explore family structures, especially in multigenerational families housed under a single, magical roof, allowed for a deeper, more complex and complicated understanding of the emotional tensions that exist within families brought together and torn apart by the trauma of their ancestors. It resonated deeply with me, and I was left stunned.
Githmi Rabel is Senior Opinion Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.