“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
(Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises)
I rarely write about movies, for a few reasons. First, I am just not a big movie or TV person - I watch a little, but not a lot, and would rather spend most of my evenings reading. Second, writing about books (and sometimes religion and politics) takes up a good bit of my time already, and writing about everything I watch would add to that.
That said, there have been a few exceptions over the years. For example, The Barchester Chronicles was an excellent screen adaptation of two novels by one of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope. Band of Brothers was recommended by a friend and veteran, and our discussions of it were worth talking about. Mostly, though, my movie writeups have involved movies that I saw with the kids that really resonated with some part of my life that I thought were worth a full post. The previous movies were Hidden Figures, Frozen, and Inside Out. It is hard to believe that the last one was four years ago, but there you have it. I have certainly seen a few movies since then, but never wrote about them.
I saw Encanto, Disney’s latest, this week, with four of the kids. The circumstances were interesting. For the first time in three years, we traveled to Reno to see my in-laws for Christmas, and managed to run into the tail end of the wettest December on record. The younger four and I drove up Christmas day, while my wife and our eldest flew in late Monday (they had to work all of the holiday weekend - medical people tend to do that.) Christmas night, a storm dropped over six inches of snow on Reno, and a LOT more elsewhere, including where my in-laws live, followed by crazy winds. That meant two days of impassable roads, and our need to find things to do with ourselves. So, on a blustery and snowy afternoon, we went to see this movie.
For some background, I have a handful of “classic” Disney cartoons that I love. Robin Hood, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and especially The Sword in the Stone. The princess movies of that era? Meh to the meh. The “second golden age” was a bit better, although I was by that time getting a bit old to go see animated flicks by myself. Then, when I had kids, they at least saw a bunch of them (all praise to the occasional electronic babysitter!) I saw some, but not nearly as many as they did. (I had a couple who were very much into Cars, which I still haven’t seen.) I would rate the Pixar movies of that era higher than the Disney ones, at least until Frozen, when Disney finally got with the 21st Century and focused on more nuanced storytelling. Pixar pushed them in that direction, and it has made for some far better movies than those of the past, in my opinion.
Encanto is one of those stories that is so much better - and far more interesting - than the usual fairy tale formula.
Before I continue, I want to be clear that this post will assume that you have seen the movie, and will have plenty of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, I strongly recommend you do so first, as this post will make so much more sense. (And also, this post won’t spoil the various revelations for you if you have seen it.)
Okay, so the basic idea of Encanto is that young Alma Madrigal, her husband Pedro, and their infant triplets, are forced to flee (along with most of their village) from an armed conflict and all the (implied but not graphic) murder, rape, and pillaging that goes along with that. During the escape, they are accosted by a group of armed men, who kill Pedro. However, a candle (with meaning to Alma and Pedro) magically comes to life with some sort of magical power that defeats the marauders, and the rest of the refugees are saved. The magic then goes on to raise a few mountains around where they are, and build a magical “casita” for the Madrigal family. The result is a magically protected refuge in the mountains of Colombia.
Fast forward a generation and a half - 50 years - and the Madrigal casita has become the center of a thriving village, and Abuela Alma is the benevolent matriarch of an increasingly large (and magical) Madrigal family. As each Madrigal child or grandchild reaches a certain age (never stated in the movie, but apparently age 5 according to later interviews of the creators), they receive their own magical powers.
She, as the protagonist of the movie, reaches her age only to find that the miracle has failed her, and she is left without magical powers - and even her own room in the casita, despite her reaching her teen years. This shocks everyone, and leaves the family doubting the future.
Things get worse for Mirabel when her beloved cousin Antonio comes of age. She is relieved that he receives his magic power, but she suddenly sees horrific cracks in the casita - which nobody else can see. And then, her family members start to have lapses of their magical powers, and she starts to uncover some unpleasant truths about her family. Her further digging causes the family to fall apart, the casita to disintegrate, and the magic to catastrophically fail.
Because this is a Disney movie for kids, we know there will be a happy ending, of course. But the actual ending was surprising to me and to some friends, because it was, well, a lot more nuanced than one expects from a magical story.
The bottom line is that Mirabel never gets a magical gift. She remains the Madrigal without the magic. The best part of this is that the ending actually reinforces the positive message of the film in a way that a neater ending wouldn’t have. (That’s actually a complaint that I have about a lot of Disney endings. It’s usually some form of magica ex machina, so to speak. The magic steps in, and everything is magical again.) Not so in this case. The solution turns out to be decidedly non-magical, and reveals that the magic was never the important thing in the first place.
In fact, the message, as the film makes explicitly clear - this is a kids’ movie, so it can’t be too subtle - the real magic of the Madrigal family and the village itself isn’t the miracle magic at all. Rather, it is the people themselves. The gift isn’t the magic, but the person. And it isn’t the magic that saves the family at the end - it is the people, both of the village and the family itself. Magic doesn’t put the family back together - it is honesty about their trauma followed by mutual grace toward each other. Magic doesn’t rebuild the casita - everyone in the village comes together to rebuild it. Mirabel doesn’t get a magical gift (although the casita finally gives her her own room) - instead, the family recognizes that she had a gift all along: her empathy, good sense, kindness, perception, and determination turn out to be even more necessary for the family than any of the more “magical” gifts.
Yeah, so that’s pretty dang good. I teared up.
And I also sat with my own pain and trauma for a while during the closing credits.
Just to be clear here, my family is not the Madrigal family, particularly. That’s both good and bad. I will not be assigning any roles from the movie to anyone in my family, and the story of the movie relates to my own primarily because it is a deeply human story, just like my story is itself deeply human because humans lived and continue to live it.
I think I have to start with the fact that my family was magical in its own way. I had an unusually good childhood, honestly. There was a certain amount of magic in growing up as I did, and there is no doubt in my mind that I am the way I am because of that. I can point to everything that I think is good and healthy about myself, my best instincts, my sense of morality and ethics, my hunger for justice, my empathy, my flexibility when it comes to gender roles, my critical thinking skills - and I can trace all of those back to the way I was raised as a child. Plenty of our friends wished they could have been us, and I don’t remember ever wanting to be in another family. It was really good for a long time. Until it wasn’t. And when things finally went wrong, they went really catastrophically wrong.
In a lot of ways, this is why the destruction of my family hurts so much. It was so very good, it was good for a long time, and even as the cracks grew, there remained a lot that was good. But the cracks grew bigger and more serious over time, and the remaining good shrank until there was too little good to hold things together.
In the same way, you can look at the Madrigal family, and see so much that is good. It is obvious why, although they are the wealthiest family in the village, they are beloved. They are generous, they look after and help everyone, they are humble and unassuming and welcoming. It’s just, well, they have issues too, and when issues aren’t addressed, but are ignored, they lead to catastrophic failure sooner or later.
Another major parallel is that both my family and the Madrigals come from a place of deep trauma. Obviously, seeing your beloved husband murdered in front of you is pretty damn traumatic. Alma is clearly not okay, and that is normal and completely understandable.
In the case of my parents, both came from traumatic upbringings, where they were (for a variety of complex and interconnected religious, political, and personal reasons) never really accepted or wanted by their parents. They had older siblings who were embraced (or in the case of my mom’s family, practically worshiped), their parents left sibling issues - including abuse - unaddressed, my parents were shunted off to boarding schools or relatives so their parents could do missionary work, and probably a hundred other things I don’t even know about. I think each of them could write a book about it, and the books wouldn’t be comedies.
Like Abuela Alma, my parents determined that we would break that cycle, that we would be raised with love and attention and acceptance and all that. AND THEY DID IT. At least to a significant degree and for a long time. As I said, I had a great childhood, filled with a lot of love and good things. Just to name a few, we were read to regularly, our parents spent a lot of time with us, we learned useful skills because they let us “help” starting young, we experienced nature, we were taught empathy and ethics, we learned about racism and colonialism and sexism and more. We even had shockingly good sex education starting at a very young age, by the standards of the time. (LGBTQ education was, well, not even a thing in the 1980s, which my kids find strange. In hindsight, I wish we had learned more then, rather than just the usual Fundie “one man one woman and no orgasms before marriage” crap, but what we got was far better than our public school friends, let me tell you. And about so many things, not just sex.) What my parents did when we were kids was truly impressive, and something I have tried to duplicate with my own kids. Up until at least my late teens, we talked about stuff, we kept communication open, we had fairly good relationships all things considered. If you pressed pause on my life at age, say, 16, it was pretty enviable. The cracks were there, but they were small, and there was still a lot to hold the family together.
You can see the same thing at work with Alma. She leveraged her unbearable sadness and trauma into building a family that was full of love and magic and safety and mutual affection. I mean, other than the faceless marauders, she has to be the closest thing to a villain this movie has and she is a wonderful person that is admirable in so many ways and could she have been my grandma? (This is what I mean about better and more nuanced plots. The drama here is internal, and can’t be resolved by killing the Bad Guy™.)
Here is where things get interesting to me: what exactly goes wrong with the Family Madrigal? The magic is failing, but why? The answer requires going back into the family history, and we are given hints in the opening musical number.
Nobody talks about Bruno.
Wait, what? Bruno, the one boy in the set of triplets? He’s gone and nobody talks about him? Why? Why not? What is going on here?
As we eventually come to find out, Bruno’s gift was seeing into the future. Which is a gift people like to think they like and want, but nobody really does. Because seeing the future means seeing what can go wrong, and suggesting changes to avoid bad stuff in the future, and people hate to be told they need to change. (Hey, all you have to do is look at the response of nearly half our country to the reality of climate change and you get the picture. Or look at what the prophet Jeremiah went through…) Bruno’s gift is sometimes “magic,” but mostly, it appears to just be observation and extrapolation. It takes zero magic to predict that the priest will go bald - he’s already balding and his dad was bald. It takes zero magic to predict that a goldfish will die - I mean, come on. Have you ever had a goldfish?
And, in what turned out to be the final straw, it took no actual magic to predict a hurricane on his sister Pepa’s wedding day. Since her emotions control the weather, and she is - to put it mildly - a bit too wound up about the whole event - well, something is going to blow and when it does…
So, Bruno is right, yet everyone is mad at him; he decides his gift isn’t helping the family, so he leaves. (Well, sort of. He hides out in the secret passages of the casita, doing his best behind the scenes to patch the cracks that only he can see…until Mirabel is able to see them too.)
Okay, so we have an obvious crack in the family: the banishing of Bruno. But, as the movie eventually reveals, even this is a symptom of a greater and earlier crack.
Alma, and thus everyone else in the family except Bruno and Mirabel, mistakenly believe that it is The Magic™ that holds the family together.
That is the fundamental mistake. Alma sees the miracle and the magic as the essential identity of the family. It isn’t until things fall apart that she sees the truth.
The true core of the Madrigal family isn’t the magic, isn’t the miracle. It is THEM. The people who make up the Madrigal family. As Alma eventually realizes - and tells Mirabel in the end - the “gift” wasn’t a magical power, it was the person. Mirabel was herself a gift to the family, and her natural gifts were what was crucial to the family in a way that no “magic” could ever be.
This epiphany is what allows the family to rebuild - to build back better. The foundation was wrong all along, and rebuilding both the casita and the family is going to require a new and better foundation - the members of the Family Madrigal and the rest of the village. In turn, this means reconciliation with Bruno and to a degree with Mirabel. Everyone is important and needs to be part of the foundation. Damn, that’s good. And so very true.
How does this relate to my own family?
Yikes. How to begin?
I told the good part about my family - and good it was! The reason things went as well as they did for as long as they did was that part of the foundation of our family (like that of the Madrigals) was solid. The commitment to love and caring and investment of time was really, really good! That was the true foundation of what was good in our family. And remnants of that lingered for decades even as the foundation eroded.
But unfortunately, just like Alma mistakenly thinks that the magic is what is special about the family, my parents increasingly saw something other than love as the foundation of what made our family what it was.
From a young age, I remember our family being admired by others, and people asking us how you got good kids like we were. My parents somehow decided that it was due, not to a seemingly vague concept of “love,” but to an increasingly detailed list of Authoritarian Fundamentalist child-rearing techniques. It started with corporal punishment (“If you aren’t willing to spank them, you won’t get good kids”) but eventually moved on to homeschooling (not bad in itself, but it became part of the Dominionist project over time), then finally to Bill Gothard’s nasty cult…and then by that time, the cracks were increasingly showing, particularly to me. (Maybe because I was never a good fit for Fundamentalist Authoritarian techniques anyway. Which is why I am the black sheep of the family, and was identified as “rebellious” pretty early on.)
This - of all things! - was seen as the “magic” of our family, the thing that made us “different” from other families. But, as is obvious now, it was actually the malevolent force that was driving us toward the complete destruction of our family. The cracks were showing, but we had papered them over.
[Note: the Madrigals’ miracle and magic were not bad in and of themselves, but became a sort of idol to them, which is why it became a problem. In contrast, Authoritarian Fundamentalism was not just an idol for our family - it was an unmitigated disaster for us, even at the time. It was and is fucking evil, antichristian, and inherently destructive. Just to be clear here. Gothard was catastrophic for our family, to put it mildly. Also, as I discuss below, growth and change are crucial to health. What doesn’t grow and adapt dies. Authoritarian Fundamentalism is by definition a system for prevention of all growth and adaptation. That is the whole fucking reason it exists. And, for this reason, it is inherently hostile to new voices, and to the sharing of power by the younger generations. It is inherently brutal to dissenting voices, to all “modern” egalitarian ideas, and to anyone who differs from the prescribed white/male/cishet/patriarchal norms.]
[Second note: This problem of confusing correlation and causation has been a constant problem for my parents and other white evangelicals of their generation. The good that came from their love was attributed to Authoritarian Fundamentalism (the damage, though, wasn’t correctly attributed), improvements in my health over time were attributed to whatever snake oil idea we were chasing at the time (while illnesses were just what happened), Reaganomics were given the credit for recovery from a recession, even though greater forces were at work, (but the 40 years of damage to our nation and redistribution of wealth upward were attributed to “lazy [non-white] poor people” instead.) The free state college tuition my parents received was okay, but if my kids want it, it is horrifying “socialism.” The list goes on…It’s ideology and confirmation bias all the way down, but woe to the person who dares to point that out…]
In the Madrigals, we eventually see that the pressure of performance has damaged everyone. Bruno is a gentle, sensitive soul, and he can’t handle the disapproval. (I wonder if he reads gay or asexual too - he never marries. You could do some interesting exploration of the possible references to LGBTQ people in this film, I bet…Oh, and Stephanie Beatriz, who voices Mirabel, is openly bisexual and an advocate for LGBTQ+ causes. So read what you want into Mirabel’s unique gifting.) So he goes, and the family loses the first of the series of perceptive people who could help them deal with their trauma.
Next to crack is obviously Mirabel, knowing she is seen as “lesser” because she is ordinary. Kudos to her dad (who married in - he is also one of the “muggles” in the family so to speak) for his wise words and complete acceptance of his daughter.
After that, things start to come fast and furious. Luisa, the Hercules of the family, opens up to Mirabel (see, she does have powers of her own) about how she is cracking under the pressure of being the brawn of the family, always expected to carry the weight on her own.
[Side note here: as the firstborn of my family, I felt this so much. And so did others who also grew up in Gothardism. I would suspect there are many more who experienced this. Perhaps all of us who are by nature “authority pleasers.” The pressure of Authoritarian Fundamentalist systems is unsustainable for most humans, and many of us still bear the scars of that pressure.]
Luisa gets the best song of the movie too, and some badass dance moves. Long live Luisa!
Mirabel meets Bruno, and decides (based on his vision) that it is up to her to “fix” the family, starting with reconciling with her older sister Isabella (whose gift is making things grow - but her family also sees her as perfect - hey! More pressure!) Mirabel apologizes for (accidentally) running the moment when Isabella’s beau tries to propose. Except that Isabella comes out with a shocking confession: she doesn’t want to marry Mariano but was going along because of the pressure to be perfect - and he is the perfect match on paper. Oh, and, she is sick of making flowers all the time (and goes on a rampage of cactus and palms and other prickly plants! Hmm, again, wonder if there is a bit of gay coding there?) And again, I resonate with this! For multiple reasons. My parents do not (and will likely never) understand the pressure for "spiritual" perfection - meaning cultural and political conformity - they put on me and continue to put on me and my family. (And, because religion for white people in this fucked up country is inseparable from white supremacist racial grievance, my defection from the right-wing political ideology is tantamount to heresy.) Oh, but also, I “failed” to marry the perfect spouse - she has a career, dresses like a normal person, and isn’t “submissive” - so my wife was antagonized, bullied, and abused until she decided to get the hell away from my parents and sister. So yeah, I’m prickly about that.
But there’s more! Mirabel’s cousin Dolores is really in love with Mariano, but everyone is so focused on how perfect Isabella is that nobody can see it. And poor Pepa is expected to always be in a good (or at worst mildly sad) mood, so the weather is always sunshine or gentle rain. (Good thing her husband Felix is such a nice guy and fully accepting of her emotions - and the wedding hurricane! Oh wait, this sounds too damn familiar too. Gothard demanded “nice” emotions all the time, and there was no place for expressing the less pretty emotions. Particularly if you were already tarred as "rebellious.")
Goodness, as I said in my quick Facebook post about the day that included this movie, I had a LOT to unpack. As do, I suspect, a lot of my fellow ex-vangelicals.
So, let’s continue. What do we see that connects all of the Madrigals that end up on the outs? There are definitely some common threads.
First is that so much is expected. Too much. The past trauma leads to a need for “safety” and “certainty,” and safety is found in perfection. It is found in never speaking of the trauma, and never letting “negative” emotions find expression. Second is that the truth-tellers of the family are essentially - and systematically - silenced. Bruno is forced out. Mirabel is lectured that the family problems are all her fault, caused by her jealousy of the gifts of others. Luisa can’t admit she can’t carry all the burdens. Isabella has to remain perfect. Pepa can never be sad or angry or upset. These too are truths about the family - vital truths - that need to be spoken for the health of the family. But everything has to be seen as okay even when it clearly is not.
That’s literally Gothardism, of course. Safety in spiritual perfection and rigid rules, repression of negative emotions, focus on ideology rather than constructively dealing with interpersonal problems, and whenever the ideology is threatened, blame the truth tellers.
In light of this, it is kind of easy to see where our family went wrong, and why I gradually, then all at once, became unwelcome in it.
As I noted, I saw myself in various ways in the characters, but most of all in the fact that I have always been the unwelcome truth teller in my family. My “gift” - or at least the most relevant one here - is that I have a pretty good bullshit detector. (My wife is even better at this, by the way, which is part of the problem…) And that didn’t go over well, particularly with my mom, who has an apparently incurable and pathological weakness for charlatans - religious, medical, political - selling bullshit. Combine this with first James Dobson then Bill Gothard’s Authoritarian Fundamentalist teachings, and I was quickly “identified” as the rebellious child, the one who was being deceived by the Devil for pushing back at the bullshit. This really got going in my teens, for obvious reasons: I was no longer the compliant little kid, but turning into an adult who not only thought differently, but was willing to speak up (despite the punishments and disapproval when I did.) As I got older - moved out, got married, had kids, watched Evangelicalism turn into (or be revealed as?) a white nationalist fascist movement, had a wife on the front lines fighting a global pandemic, had a kid come out as transgender (which by itself would have exploded our family), and so much more - I increasingly refused to shut up. I made it clear I was done with the Authoritarian Fundamentalism both personally and for my own family, (and my wife refused to follow the rules my parents attempted to impose on us.) I started pushing back directly on the racism, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and hate. I said out loud the truth that my abusive sister targeted both my wife and my brother’s wife, resulting in badly broken relationships. I stopped pretending the Republican party wasn’t fascist and racist and anti-science. I called out the social darwinist politics for the evil it was. I stopped putting up with the medical misinformation and other bullshit. I demanded evidence rather than talking points and slogans. And, like Bruno, I found I wasn’t welcome in my birth family anymore.
[Note: my parents’ decision to cut me out of their lives just happened, by an amazing coincidence, to coincide with my informing them in no uncertain terms that I would no longer have any contact with my abusive narcissist sister until she made restitution to my wife for her decades of abuse. Totally coincidence, I am sure. [sarcasm font] Also, it happened, by some amazing coincidence, to coincide with my child coming out to them as transgender. Again, definitely coincidental, right? But I am sure that my decision to no longer coddle their feelings, but to push back when they said appallingly racist, sexist, and homophobic/transphobic, or “reality challenged” things, was part of it. That’s what they referred to as “insulting” them - literally quoting them verbatim online. Social consequences suck, apparently.]
Looking back, the cracks were there a long time ago. Had I been listened to, we could have avoided getting involved with Gothard, which could have saved so much heartache. (And I might have gotten to have a normal higher education, and picked my own career, rather than living with the one option Gothard gave us.) We could have avoided fighting about music and clothing. We would never have burned books. (Yes, that happened - fuck you, Bill Gothard.) Maybe, just maybe, my parents would have gotten the secular therapy they needed for their legitimate and significant childhood trauma, rather than self-medicating with Authoritarian Fundamentalism. Maybe they could have seen my sister’s behavior for what it was - malignant and manipulative narcissism - rather than feed it. And, in a perfect world, maybe they would have seen my wife as the much-needed gift to the family she was, rather than reject her and drive her - and me - away.
But it is what it is.
Some final thoughts on the movie.
First, one thing I really liked was the glorious color diversity of the characters. The setting was Columbia, and the characters reflect, not just a village, but the country itself, which (like much of South America) has a polyglot mixture of those descended from indigenous peoples, Europeans, enslaved Africans, east Asians, and Middle Easterners (yes indeed!), all of which have contributed to the culture in significant ways. The ideal village of the Madrigals show all of these colors, and at least a small glimpse of the cultures. And, as an ideal village should, all of these peoples are embraced by the village - and by the Madrigals themselves. I also loved how the children reflected the diversity of colors that the parents would have likely produced. (Also, I literally know people who look like most of the characters. Throughout the movie, I was thinking “that looks like [fill in the blank]!”)
Second, on a related note, rather than use well-known (and white) actors to do the character voices, Disney went with a cast of lesser-known (but talented!) actors who are either from South America or the Caribbean, or second-generation immigrants from South America. This helped so much with the first thing, which was to portray the diversity and culture of Columbia in a way that asking white actors to imitate could never have done.
Third, and I didn’t think of this until a day later, I found it interesting that all of the “outsiders” who join the Madrigal family were…wait for it…MALE. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but it struck me because of another family resemblance. I think in general, in Fundie culture (maybe American culture?) it is far easier for a man to join a family than a woman. Have a well-paying job, be a reasonably nice guy, have the same religion, and you are in. You will be embraced. Women, on the other hand, have fucking HUGE expectations. In our culture, they are expected to carry all the emotional and social burden, while the men…make money. In Fundie culture, they are expected to conform completely to the cultural and political expectations of the family they marry into - and enforce those expectations on the next generation, and to avoid rocking the boat in any way. And, if there are one or more strong females in the family already, they are expected to “know their place” and “submit.” (Aka, kiss ass.) I’d say this was just my family, but I have seen this in dozens of people I know from my Gothard days. There is a tremendous amount of destruction as a result, and estrangement is more the rule than the exception. So many women have been greeted with hostility and abuse and control by Fundie families when they marry in.
So, on the one hand, I loved that spouses were fully accepted by the Madrigal family. That would've been great in my family! (No shade on my brother-in-law, who is fine, but of COURSE my sister’s spouse was accepted but not mine. She’s the golden child who can do no wrong no matter how abusive she is, and I’m the black sheep.) On the other, of course they were - they were male. (And anyone in their right mind would want Felix and Agustin in their family - they are the very best sort of male role models, honestly. I will throw a party if any of my kids marry guys like that!) I strongly suspect that had a woman married into the Madrigal family, the issues would have come to a head really fast. Which would either have been a good thing, providing incentive for growth even before Mirabel filled that role, or it would have torn the family completely apart, like it did mine.
Fourth, the visuals are gorgeous. Go see the movie for that, if nothing else. If you are going to spend millions of dollars on a film, make sure it looks this beautiful.
Fifth: My only regret is that some of the minor characters don’t get as much development as I would have preferred. Which, it’s a movie. For kids. It can’t be eight hours long. But it would have been fun to know more about Camillo, the shapeshifting cousin. And Mirabel’s mother, Julietta, who also has adorable streaks of gray in her hair. (I am a sucker for women with natural gray, what can I say?) Also, she heals with food, which would definitely be my superpower if I could choose. And maybe they could just make a movie featuring Felix, who is clearly the person in this film that everyone wants to hang with.
Sixth: That scene where Mirabel has to drain the sand from her glasses. Whoever thought that one up was a freaking genius. It’s the little things like that that make the best animated movies so great.
Seventh: Lin-Manuel Miranda. That is all I need to say about that. Damn infectious songs with a hip hop pace and thoughtful words.
Finally, this is a message a heck of a lot deeper than “someday my prince will come” (classic Disney), “believe in yourself” (Disney of my era), or “follow the rules” (morality tales of all eras.) Rather, it is a reminder that community is complicated. Individuals matter - they are the gift, not “resources” to be used or abused. In turn, the community - or family - that cares for all of the individuals will be rewarded because the individuals in turn will work for the good of the community. Reject the gifts of some of the individuals, and the whole community suffers. Use gifts selfishly, and the community falls apart.
And, perhaps, in all of this, there is another deep truth: what doesn’t grow, dies. You cannot cling to the miracles of the past, and expect them to carry you forever. You cannot merely imitate the culture, the practices, the systems of the past and expect that they will continue to work forever. A family, a community, a species must continue to grow and evolve or it will die. As the Madrigals discovered (and my family refuses to accept - because Authoritarian Fundamentalism) no family can remain unchanged with time and growth. As new members join, whether through marriage or birth, the family changes. New perspectives are added, new needs become apparent, new gifts are brought to the table. Either a family (or community) evolves to embrace and utilize the newness that comes in, or it will shrivel and shrink, crack and crumble, feed on itself and die.
The Madrigals do this successfully, starting with Alma, who is such a lovely character, when she finally speaks her trauma, admits her deepest fears, and allows the rest of the family to help carry her burdens, starting with Mirabel. From there, as relationships are mended and those rejected embraced again, the family can heal. And, equally crucially, they stop seeing themselves as magical, and embrace being just normal humans, like the others of the village, who turn out to be just as crucial to the world (and just as magical) as the Madrigals. They go from looking protectively inward, to looking generously outward, and that is the most wonderful thing of all.
As I said, my family is not the Madrigals, and life is not a Disney movie. Which is why Encanto brought up some of the feelings of deep grief that I have been walking with for the last several years. (And, to a certain extent, ever since I first saw my family’s cracks in my teen years.) I know this won’t magically (or even prosaically) happen. My parents have their identity so wrapped up in Authoritarian Fundamentalism and Republican ideologies that it would probably destroy their self-conception to embrace the truth. (I would know: losing my own Evangelical and Republican identity over the last decade has been pretty traumatic, as this blog has documented.) My narcissist sister would have to give up immense power and privilege if we were to rebuild into a functional family, and that ain’t never happening. Narcissists never voluntarily give up power. (That’s why she has torpedoed every attempt we have made to shift the family dynamics in a more healthy direction.) But I am glad to see Disney take a stab at this deeply human issue in a thoughtful and nuanced (for a kids’ movie) manner. Fiction often sells hope, and that is something we all need, particularly in dark times, and Encanto provides a form of hope.
Go see Encanto, or stream it if you prefer. I’m glad I did.
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