If I’m honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the hype about Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 60th animated film, Encanto. Nothing against the film, but it wasn’t one that I thought about often or for which I felt I should put the release date on my calendar.
Want more honesty? Now that I think about it, there wasn’t the usual pre-release hype for Encanto that Disney is usually known for, but I’m not sure why. But there was that Encanto-themed airplane. That was cool.
But regardless of the goings-on and mindset before Encanto made its theatrical debut, once the film went public for Disney fans to debate and decide on, it was an instant success. Even though it was just released at the theater at Thanksgiving, it was immediately on track to become the highest-grossing animated film of 2021–a claim to fame fitting, I suppose, in celebration of Disney Animation’s 60th feature offering.
And I had read all about it long before I saw it myself. Full disclosure: I saw it for the first time on Christmas night. It was my first viewing, but the first of many, and now, I love writing about the film as much as I love watching it because there are so many wonderful things to unpack in Encanto, from the stories surrounding its inception to the fabulous music to the hidden symbolism and Disney Easter eggs throughout the film to . . . the list goes on.
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But perhaps one of the most intriguing things to “unpack” about Encanto has to do with the many themes that underscore the storyline in the film. There are several, and each one has a hand in making Encanto the perfect film to be released mid-pandemic (seriously, will you please just leave, COVID??).
In the midst of the strangeness and uncharted waters of this unprecedented scenario known as the global coronavirus pandemic, Encanto comes along and reminds us about the things that matter, the things that are important, and might even have a few things to teach us about dealing with one another during this difficult time, whether the filmmakers had that goal in mind or not.
I can’t think of a time in life when humility wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s a refreshing thing to see in the storyline of Encanto, which centers around the “amazing” and “fantastical” and “magical” Madrigal family, a Colombian family blessed with a miracle years ago that continues to grow over time. (Makes sense that those with magical powers might have a full-time job staying humble.)
Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist in Encanto voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, first exemplifies humility at the beginning of the film when she sings “The Family Madrigal” and describes the abilities and gifts of each family member, leaving herself out, of course, because she’s the one Madrigal who couldn’t open her door–the one Madrigal who was not blessed with a superhuman ability. She doesn’t let that stop her from singing (quite literally) the praises of her family members who do possess those special gifts.
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Luisa, voiced by actress Jessica Darrow, exemplifies humility as she sings her soul-baring ballad, “Surface Pressure.” Luisa is Mirabel’s older sister who has been blessed with unimaginable strength. She lifts donkey–four or five at a time–as well as church buildings, and in her ballad, she even lifts the ground of the earth up over her head and tosses la casita on her feet with ease.
But her amazing physical strength has led the family to assume Luisa can handle anything thrown at her, and we’re not just talking burros. Though she’s never said a word about how she feels, in the song “Surface Pressure,” Luisa opens up to Mirabel–even if only briefly–about her feelings and her concerns.
From lyrics like, “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless/if I can’t be of service,” and “Under the surface, I hide my nerves, and it worsens/I worry something is gonna hurt us,” to lyrics that read, “I think about my purpose/can I somehow preserve this,” we are made keenly aware that not only is Luisa fearful of the day she comes across an order too tall for her to handle, but we are also made to understand that Luisa’s humility keeps her mindful of the fact that she’s still only human, even if she has superhuman qualities.
Luisa’s humility didn’t make Mirabel want to take advantage of her; rather, it made Mirabel want to help her. And if ever humility were needed in the world, it’s now. At a time when the uncertain lurks and things are ever-changing, how nice would it be if everyone were a little more humble? When everyone participates in humility, everyone wins.
The theme of togetherness might sound quite opposite of what the CDC recommends during the pandemic, and surely togetherness isn’t a great idea if someone has COVID, but togetherness doesn’t always mean a physical state. It can often mean an emotional effort where everyone pulls together, or a spiritual togetherness when a community pulls together to grieve a loss or celebrate a victory. Sometimes togetherness has to do with like-mindedness which, by the way, doesn’t mean you have to see eye to eye on everything.
In the story of Encanto, the whole Madrigal family lives together in a sprawling, fantastical house full of magic, called casita. With one brother, 2 nieces, 2 nephews, 11 aunts and uncles, and 17 first cousins, I’m thinking living under one roof could be detrimental to my health.
But it works in the story of Encanto because it’s that spirit of togetherness that ultimately brings about healing, understanding, and restoration to the Madrigal family.
One of the very evident central themes of Encanto is that of determination. We see it in individual members of the Madrigal family and in the family as a unit as well. Abuela Alma, the family’s matriarch, is determined to keep the miracle she received alive, no matter what, even to the point of banishing her own son–whom she sees as the family’s resident evil–from the family. She does so because, at the time, she believes she is protecting her family and their blessings. That part of her spirit of determination isn’t attractive, but that same spirit comes through later in the story of Encanto as Abuela Alma experiences an amazing personal growth experience, allowing her spirit of determination to keep her from repeating her mistakes.
Mirabel Madrigal exemplifies a beautiful spirit of determination as she takes upon herself the arduous task of learning why “we don’t talk about Bruno,” and when she determines that that reason isn’t reason enough to banish Bruno from the family, Mirabel again exemplifies that spirit of determination by seeing that he welcomed back into the Madrigal family, even though she knows her family is against the idea of his return.
At one point in the story, Isabella, Mirabel’s sister who has the gift of being the “perfect, golden child” and can make flowers bloom whenever and wherever she wants, finally reaches a point of determination: she’s determined to be herself instead of keeping up the facade of perfection. Her spirit of determination works well in her favor, as it allows her to become the truest version of herself.
A spirit of determination during a pandemic? Yes, please. Determination to stay well, determination to spread kindness. Determination to do my part to be part of the solution. Definitely. A spirit of determination for the good is always a beautiful accessory, and it’s beautiful in the story of Encanto too.
Forgiveness, Understanding, and Compassion
The themes of forgiveness, understanding, and compassion are obvious in Encanto, but they fall more into this order: understanding, compassion, and then forgiveness.
It is Mirabel who sets things in motion by wanting to understand why casita is beginning to crack (and why she’s the only one who can see it happening). When she throws caution to the wind and steps into Bruno’s tower, it’s only because she is determined to understand so she can help. When she discovers the truth, she has so much compassion for Bruno and for her family members who feel crushed under the weight of Abuela Alma’s expectations, and ultimately, that compassion extends to Abuela too, thus allowing Mirabel to forgive her for her unkindness.
Bruno is also able to forgive Abuela Alma for banishing him, and he’s able to forgive his family for blindly following Abuela’s example in standing against him. Abuela is able to forgive herself and seek forgiveness from her family members as well.
But true forgiveness can only happen when there is first understanding and compassion. There’s so much unrest amongst people and even family members because of the pandemic, as it relates to personal choices and stances on things like masks, mask mandates, vaccines, vaccine mandates, precautionary measures, and the like. But kindness toward one another can take place even in the presence of disagreement.
As in the story of Encanto, when we take a moment to understand someone else, we can often understand their stance on issues, their beliefs, etc., and when we’re able to do that, our compassion for others only grows, and forgiveness, when needed, is more easily afforded.
The themes within the story of Encanto are seen and felt throughout the film, and each one lends itself to the ultimate solution Mirabel seeks, as well as the solution needed by the entire family–a solution that allows the family to rebuild literally and figuratively. And those same themes can help us as individuals, as communities, and as a society to stay strong and to rebuild as necessary.
Again, Encanto is the perfect mid-pandemic film, so maybe all the delays worked in our favor after all.