Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
When Disney’s Encanto was released in 2021, I was deeply curious to watch it. Having witnessed first-hand the catastrophic effects that living in proximity to the USA has had on countries such as Mexico and Guatemala, I was sceptical to see how Disney, a North American institution, would present Encanto. I expected a brightly animated reel of South American stereotypes, a sort of fairground ride through the country’s most distinguishing features, which the film is, albeit in a vaguely non-offensive way. What I did not expect was to actually be won over by the film, in particular its discussion of intergenerational miscommunication and the trauma of displacement.
For anyone who has read Gabriel García Márquez’ famous novel 100 Years of Solitude, a film about a magical Columbian house and its family drama may seem familiar. That being said, Disney brings its own brand to the ‘magical-house motif’, making magical realism more child-friendly. Encanto is the story of a family house which is miraculously created by a displaced woman, Alma. The film is ambiguous about this, but my reading was that through the power of magic, the house builds itself when her husband, the ubiquitous Pedro Madrigal, is murdered by a group of shadowy men on horseback. Cut off from any context, the conflict faced by the Madrigals is confusing. Disney doesn’t dwell on the cause of this violence, and symbolises Colombia’s entire past of civil wars, beginning with the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century, with a couple of bad guys on horses (I guess it is a children’s film, but some explanation would be nice, especially regarding an area of the Americas that the Western world know very little about). The magical house then bestows powers on each member of the family, until Mirabel is born, the only one without a magical ability. Oh, and there’s also a magical candle that can't ever go out perched on a precariously unsheltered windowsill.
Mirabel is an instantly sympathetic character for those who feel underappreciated in their family. For one, as the first Disney princess with glasses, her struggles with dropping them felt very relatable. They are also a thoughtful touch towards her characterisation as seemingly flawed— imperfect in a 'perfect' family. The film does a good job of conveying Mirabel’s fear of being a disappointment through angsty musical numbers, until she realises that she is not the only one who is hiding such feelings. It turns out that the family ‘miracle’ is in danger because they are individually crumbling under the weight of the responsibility that comes with their power, as well as upholding the well-respected family name of ‘Madrigal’. Contributing to a large amount of this pressure is the venerable abuela Alma, who steers the magical ship and demands each family member keep in line.
What stood out in the film was not its stunning animation or Lin Manuel Miranda's Disney soundtrack; rather it was Mirabel's relationship with her austere abuela that made me so emotional. The stern older woman, with her sometimes cruel comments regarding Mirabel's lack of power, becomes painfully sympathetic in the last twenty minutes of the film. In a flashback to Alma’s youth, we see the horrors of displacement from one’s home and community (as horrifying as Disney can get, anyway) through the story of Alma and Pedro’s flight from violence with their three children. Alma’s obsession with family suddenly becomes comprehensible; having lost her first home, she is merely fighting to keep another in the only way she knows how. It made me reflect on the older generation in my life who were formed by their challenging lives, re-living patterns of survival even when they were no longer necessary, creating divides between themselves and their children.
Maribel and her family's story ends with the typical Disney touch, as all is healed. The magic of the house is restored to its former glory, although this time 'built on a different foundation'. If healing generational miscommunication and trauma was that easy, we'd have probably achieved world peace by now. However, Mirabel and Alma's attempt to understand each other is a positive lesson and, for me, the most impactful part of the film. That, and an intense desire to eat an arepa.