Encanto gave me an existential crisis, a first for a Disney film.
Its story centers around a family with supernatural powers called the Madrigals who have been the spiritual center of their town for generations. Each member of the Madrigals is bestowed a “gift” by a magic candle when they come of age, going all the way back to the family matriarch, Abuela (“Grandmother”), who received the candle through some unknown miracle while escaping from her hometown—and through the noble and tragic sacrifice of her beloved husband. The protagonist of the story is Mirabel, one of Abuela’s granddaughters, who is the only Madrigal to not have a gift. But when Mirabel begins to see what looks like a premonition about the destruction of their house and their magic, she takes action to solve the mystery, and in doing so, learns more about her family than she—or anyone else—ever knew.
The story of the “non-special” person who is surrounded by incredibly talented people and goes on to do big things doesn’t seem all that unique, and plenty of similar narratives never felt like a chest-wrenching experience to me. But the way in which the genuine mutual love between Mirabel and her family carries a vein of patronizing concern over Mirabel’s lack of conventional ability (by Madrigal standards) hits a little too close to home. It’s that complicated extra layer underpinning the interactions between Mirabel’s immediate and extended family, where a desire to help Mirabel ends up hurting by inadvertently reinforcing the idea that she’ll never be good enough, which makes the film wallop like a sack full of bricks.
But the film also has plenty of joyful highs, especially as Mirabel gradually breaks through the invisible barriers that obfuscate the state of her relatives’ emotional wellbeing. The emphasis on family is anything but shallow, and the simple yet profound truths about every character lend credence to the idea that the notion of the ideal and picturesque Madrigals is neither entirely true nor entirely false. The pressure to live up to greatness is heavy. And as for the eponymous uncle from the film’s hit song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” for me his story strikes closest to home.
What is also eminently relatable as someone who is descended from immigrants who had to basically start anew in an unfamiliar land is the story of the cultural gap that forms as each successive generation must deal with the challenges that lie ahead. Abuela’s priorities are the result of the circumstances that shaped her, and it makes me reflect on my own ancestors’ hardships—though not without pondering why the generational divide can be so very steep.
I don’t hate Encanto for making me feel all sorts of ways. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a powerful and authentic rollercoaster of emotions that reflect a family with a complex history, and I appreciate that a lot. I think it can sometimes be easy to think that those who have those feelings of inadequacy brought upon by familial pressure are alone, and it’s comforting to see such a story play out on so grand a stage.