Disney’s Encanto is all over the internet like cake on a toddler’s face. It’s set in Colombia, nd it’s the story of a girl growing up in a family where everyone else has superpowers, and if you think you know where this is going, you’re wrong. Because Disney’s newest film has one big problem.
The problem is that it’s a Disney film.
To be clear: I love Disney. Maybe I shouldn’t, as a fully-grown iron-knickered feminist lefty killjoy, but I do, and if I didn’t it wouldn’t matter. Besides, I was a bookish, brown-haired, friendless five year old when Beauty and the Beast came out, so I owe them some grace. In fact, the entire. reason I watched Encanto last week was because there was nothing in the world I wanted more than a by-the-book Disney film.
It was Wednesday. I was stressed. I wanted to space out in front of something lovely and unchallenging. I was looking forward to Lin Manuel Miranda doing what he does best - delivering deft songs that are both profound and profoundly silly. I was hoping for pantomime villains and minimal character development and maybe an amusing animal sidekick.
I was NOT expecting to be completely and utterly emotionally dinsintegrated.
That wasn’t on my schedule, and it wasn’t on the posters. Nothing in the promotional campaign led me to anticipate an all-singing, heart-skinning technicolor vivisection of generational trauma. Encanto -rather like its heroine - utterly bombs at being what it’s supposed to be.
And that’s okay.
It’s more than okay.
Because all the things that make it a failure are the exact same things that make it relentlessly interesting and great. Encanto is a white-hot, wonderful mess. It made me gasp and made me angry and I haven’t stopped thinking about it all week.
And I’m not the only one. Encanto was a box-office disappointment when it came out in November. But then, just before Christmas -just around the time when hundreds of millions of humans happen to be thinking hardest about their own family dynamics - Encanto hit Disney Plus.
And that’s when all sentimental hell broke loose on the internet dot com.
Here’s the logline, for the as-yet-uninitiated. The Madrigals are a huge, magical family living in a huge, magical house in a remote village in Columbia. So far, so Hundred Years of Solitude, except with more singing and less incest. Anyway. It all starts when the family matriarch, Abuela Alma, loses her home and her husband to horrifying violence and has to flee with her children, seeking a miracle.
Of course, she gets one.
After some unspecified Disney sparklebusiness with a candle, boom - the magical, sentient house, the Casita, appears as if from nowhere. Fast forward fifty years, and the village is an technicolor magical realist mini-utopia. The Casita has blessed each Madrigal with a unique superpower that helps protect the family and their village. One cousin has super-strength, another is a shape-shifter, another controls the weather -and Abuela controls it all.
But there are cracks in the foundation of the house. Cracks that nobody will talk about. Everyone is so scared of it all falling apart again that nobody will see the danger. Nobody, that is, except Mirabel - the teenage misfit, and the only Madrigal without any powers at all. All Mirabel wants is to make her family proud, but when she goes looking for the source of the cracks, she risks being cast out completely- because Abuela will do anything to keep from losing the family home again.
And if you think that already sounds really very heavy for a cartoon musical, you’re not wrong.
Encanto claims to be a family film, and it is. In the exact same way that Gone Girl is a rom-com.
Because right away, something feels wrong with this story. The opening number is impressive all by itself, as our cheery heroine manages to introduce twelve distinct characters and lay out the whole back-story in a matter of minutes. But look closer at the lyrics:
My Tia Peppa
her mood controls the weather
when she's unhappy,
well, the temperature gets weird
What the Borderline fuck? Okay, moving on -
My Tio Bruno
We don’t talk about Bruno!
They say he saw the future,
one day he disappeared
Kid, stop singing and get out of that house. Don't go back for your stuff. We can get you more stuff.
Part of the genius of Encanto is that, on the surface, it all so looks normal and happy. Everyone’s smiling and dancing! There’s music and color and fun! And much like in a real family, young children will only see the music and magic and rictus grins. They won’t see the damage or the danger, though they might wonder why mummy is crying in the cinema. There are elements of Encanto that are truly adult in the way that no age-rating system can grasp. Sex and drugs and violence are simple, but working through generational pain is the real grown-up shit.
You might not have heard of Doctor Murray Bowen, who first named the ‘dysfunctional family roles’ that are a common shorthand in addiction treatment and trauma therapy. But I would bet a mountain of magic arepas that someone in the Encanto writers room does, because the Madrigals track very clearly against those tropes. Each character matches one of the classic roles that people adopt within inside families in crisis: the Hero, the Martyr, the Mascot, the Manipulator, the Black Sheep, the Lost Child, the Clown. Their powers reflect those roles, and so do their limitations, and I’m convinced it’s on purpose. Let’s start with the most obvious.
The Hero/Golden Child: Isabella. She’s literally introduced that way. She’s the one whose job it is to be perfect and accomplished enough to justify all that dysfunction to the outside world. Isabella has apparently limitless control over plant matter which she seems to use exclusively to chuck flowers around, which is weird, given that her neighbors are farmers who could probably use the occasional pile of potatoes.
(In fact, this whole story is a commentary on how toxic relationships can limit people’s horizons. Between them, the Madrigals have more than enough power to remake the world outside their valley, and instead they spend their whole time getting on each other’s nerves in a giant house made of metaphor.)
Anyway. Like every Golden Child, the pressure to be flawless stunts Isabella’s personality and stifles her real talents. Sadly for her, Disney already did this one.Her song is perfectly serviceable, but we already have the ultimate Gifted Kid Meltdown hit, and this isn’t it. What could I do if I stopped trying to be perfect and Let It Go? Is a question that has been thoroughly covered. Poor Isabella.
The Mastermind: Pepa. The one who acts out all the emotional drama so nobody else has to. Whatever happens, we have to keep Pepa happy, because the weather depends on her mood. Her husband dances around her on eggshells. God only knows what life was like in the village when she gave birth.
The Caretaker/Martyr: Julieta, but also and most obviously, goddamn Luisa. Let us now praise Luisa Madrigal, patron saint of long-suffering, buff-as-maybe, most-doing middle siblings everywhere. If she were real you’d beg her to tread on you. Can carry the whole family and its livestock on her shoulders, literally, and still have enough puff yet for the best number in the show.
Luisa’s song ‘Surface Pressure’ is an emotionally ballistic Miranda earworm designed to wreck every current or former kid who was ever asked to carry too much. Send it to your middle sister if you want to make her ugly-cry. I did.
The Lost Child: Dolores. Sweet Dolores with her cursed ears and kind heart. She can hear and interpret everything anyone says or does for miles around, which makes the whole valley a police state she can’t turn off. Speaks in a whisper, says nothing, listens to everything, keeps her head down in the chorus -and can you blame her? Her power is objectively upsetting. Poor Dolores.
The Clown: a few lyrical flourishes suggest that this was meant to be Camilo, aka Sir Not Appearing In this Movie. A shapeshifter who hangs around in a big poncho, Camilo is barely featured, which is sad because I’d have loved to see his song. I say he, but friendo spends most of their screentime shape-shifting into female form and nobody seems to have noticed.
Apart from Tumblr. Which makes sense.
The Mascot: Antonio. Adorable pre-teen who can talk to animals. Has pinchable cheeks, rides a tiger, QED.
The Scapegoat: Mirabel. At least in this generation. Abuela Alma seems to need to blame someone other than herself for the cracks in the Casita’s foundations. In a dysfunctional family that’s not ready to heal, there’s no worse crime than asking awkward questions. That’s what Mirabel spends most of the movie doing, even though it might get her shunned, just like her Bad Uncle Bruno. Because in the Madrigal family, as in so many others, if you name the problem, you become the problem -and the structure you relied on to save you suddenly becomes treacherous.
In the most frightening part of the film, Mirabel has asked too many awkward questions- and suddenly, the sentient, all-seeing haunted house that has protected her all her life turns against her. She falls through a rotten floorboard over a terrifying drop, and screams for the house to save her.
So Bruno does.
Bad uncle Bruno, about whom We Do Not Talk. We’ve heard about him as a glowing-eyed villain, ‘seven feet tall, rats along his back’, using his gift of foresight to mess with everyone’s peace of mind in the currently ubiquitous diss track that has been topping the charts all week. Bruno, apparently, is to blame for everything that threatens the village. Brrrr.
But then, in a welcome reversal of the predictable villain-twist, we meet him, and he turns out to be just a sweet, awkward guy with more insight than tact. The first glimpse we get of the real Bruno - voiced with trembly self-effacing excellence by Jon Leguizamo - he comes out of hiding to save his niece despite being plainly not okay about any of this.
Bruno, my absolute heart. Ten years ago, his mother decided his clairvoyance was a threat to the family, and told him to leave - so he vanished. ‘Good for him,’ said my best friend, a fully grown woman to whom I explained the story in one excited breath. ‘But he comes back, right?’
‘Nope,’ I said. ‘He never left. He’s still in the goddamn walls, eating the leftovers and spackling over the cracks in secret, because he thinks he’s hurting people with his visions, but he still longs to be part of the family that rejected him. He has made himself a little place setting with his name on it where he can pretend he’s still eating dinner with his mum and sisters. He lives in the walls and the rats are his friends.
I fucking know.
To quote my friend, there’d better be a goddamn happy ending to this.
Therapy doesn’t come for free.
Disney has had a lot of protagonists who are, at least in theory, outcasts - but not like this. Never remotely like this. Bruno is not a plucky, good-looking teenager who just heard his call to adventure. He’s not a secret princess out to Claim Her Destiny and Prove Them Wrong. Bruno is a twitchy, tic-riddled disaster in his mid-thirties. He’s been bullied and blamed for most of his life, and it hasn’t made him mean, but it has made him sad and strange. I’ve known a fair few Brunos. I’m sure you have, too. But not in this sort of film.
It’s unclear, despite the tic-ing, whether Bruno is explicitly coded as a neurodivergent character. What is clear is that every neurodivergent teen and adult who ever felt like a misfit in their family of origin has glommed onto this character with shocked recognition. So have a lot of LGBTQ people, for the same reason. There are still so few stories out there about what happens if you’re different and strange and you don’t have a family that accepts you for who you are within the course of three short dramatic acts. But that’s still the reality for many young people.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the major reason young people become homeless or is because of conflict with their families of origin. That makes millions of people who, like Bruno, ‘lost their way’ in their family and are driven out of the homes that were supposed to protect them. LGBT youth are almost twice as likely to be cut adrift like this. It’s hardly surprising that the extremely online queer trauma gang have claimed Bruno as their own. Fittingly, Bruno has been adopted by a giant family of identified outcasts all over the world - even though this is one fairytale that knows exactly where it’s from.
“There’s nothing more Colombian,” as Jose Maria Luna tells us at Polygon, “than the desire to find a home in an inherently broken country.”
Encanto has already been praised for representing the constellation of ethnic backgrounds that make up modern Colombia - but representation requires more than diversity, as Luna points out:
The Colombian Cultural Trust — a collection of consultants from a wide variety of fields, brought in to ensure the film’s authenticity — may have spoken to the writer-directors about this problem. Disney’s movie about our country couldn’t overtly include our violent past and present. But at some point, they decided not to ignore it, either. Disney’s Colombian movie centers on finding a place free of that innate suffering: a place its people can safely call home.
But sometimes, in nations as much as in families, the effort to sustain a sense of safety winds up being the very thing causing the damage. In that way, plenty of countries and cultures and communities operate like dysfunctional families. And that makes this Columbian fairytale feel pretty damn universal.
And in fairytales, like in dysfunctional families, there has to be someone to blame. Someone who can be castigated and cast aside in a way that’s cathartic and feels like a solution. Fairytales, like families, need villains. So if Bruno isn’t the villain, who is?
Which brings us to the Abuela problem.
A young woman stumbles out of a living hell of grief and violence and struggle with her babies on her back and promises that whatever it takes, nothing will hurt them, ever again. She builds a fortress out of that trauma to protect her family from danger, and it works - but over time the fortress becomes a prison. Violence breeds in silence. Secrets harden into shame, and everyone is trapped together by duty and by love with too little money in too few rooms.
Does this describe anyone else’s grandma? I wish I could have watched this film with mine.
Abuela is a complicated antagonist. She’s supposed to have been deeply cruel to both Mirabel and Bruno, but -as with the political violence that drives the backstory- there’s only so much of that can conventionally be shown in a kids’ movie. In Disney films, after all, only villains are cruel to children.
Your real parents can never be villains. If they are, they aren’t your real parents. They’ll turn out to be your uncle or your stepmother or the witch who stole you away from the castle when you were just a tiny plot device.This didn’t start with Disney. People have been editing family violence out of popular narrative for centuries.
Two hundred years ago, The Brothers Grimm altered later editions of their Fairytales so that it’s stepmothers who poison Snow White and chase Hansel and Gretel into the woods. In the original telling, their actual mothers mistreat them. Meanwhile, in early versions of Cinderella, the stepmother is absent- instead, Cinderella is abused by her sisters, and sometimes by her father, whose predation drives her into the arms of her Prince.
But by the Industrial Age, an architecture of unseeing had become essential to bourgeois life. It was wrong to question the authority of a husband and father, or the goodness of a wife and mother, just as it was wrong to question the institution of slavery, or give white women the vote, or renounce God. Freud himself was almost iced out of polite Viennese society for suggesting that his young women patients had been abused by family members, and only hit the big time on when he walked that bit back. Families were sacrosanct.
They still are. For the Madrigals, like for a lot of us, The Family is an institution that’s allowed to be bigger and more important than the people it’s meant to protect. It’s meant to be everything, to everyone, all at once: a sanctuary, a home, a source of moral authority, a replacement for social infrastructure when the state fails. The harsher and more alienating the outside world gets, the more important The Family becomes as an idea- whether or not you’re part of one. Family is meant to be a refuge from structural violence and a reason to survive it. So what do we do with the fact that family isn’t always the safest place for everyone? What happens when the home that was supposed to be a refuge turns into a trap?
As the story of Encanto builds to a crisis, and Bruno’s visions lead Mirabel to a final confrontation with Abuela, the whole house collapses, almost crushing the family. They survive, but the magic is gone - and so are their powers. It’s about the most devastating, darkly adult moment I’ve ever seen in a kids’ film.
And then Encanto remembers that it's supposed to be a Disney movie.
I don't mean a Disney movie as in 'a movie made by Disney'. I mean it as in 'what, you're going to cry, are you? did you think your life was going to be a Disney movie?'
Disney movies occupy a special place inc culture - they are the promise that challenges can be overcome, that the heteronormative nuclear family wins the day, and that specific forms of love conquer all. This a genre promise, and those matter. For the same reason that a ghost story has to be frightening, and a romance has to end in requited love. Disney films don't just make that promise, they are that promise, and breaking the promise is a big deal.
Storytellers ought to fulfil their promises to their audience, just like parents ought to fulfil the basic promises to their children.But sometimes, in the same way, honoring that promise comes at a price. Just like when a parent is so determined to protect their family from harm that they end up hurting them for their own good. Just like when a community leader is so desperate to preserve the peace that they avoid the problems until they become too big to ignore.
In Encanto, the fairytale fights with the fearful truth right up until the credits roll. The narrative leads us inexorably to a place where the only way for our heroes to truly grow and learn and change is to leave that big broken house behind and go back to the world. And that’s a big problem.
It’s a problem because a Disney movie isn't allowed to end that way. Not even Frozen ends that way. A story where magic and the power of The Family don’t fix everything might be healing and powerful and true, but it's not a Disney film.
So the writers had a choice They chose to give us all the happy ending we wanted but didn't need. In a rushed finale sequence feels like it was written and performed under duress, the Casita comes alive again, Bruno for some reason apologizes to everyone, the Madrigals get their powers back- poor Dolores!- and they all just move back into the house like nothing happened.
It‘a a perfect Disney happy ending- and it feels wrong.
But I'm not sure it was the wrong choice.For one thing, it makes it clear that the traditional happy ending isn't always happy for everyone. For another - well. The version of the story where they just put the big broken house back together and don't talk about the difficult things ever again it is pretty damn plausible. It's what a lot of families do. They wait for a wedding or a funeral or another high-stakes occasion lubricated by the Booze of Truth, they clear the air, and the next day they clean up the blood and the bruises and broken windows and become that seamless, smiling Disney family again.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
I suspect there was an enormous fight about whether or not the Madrigals ought to get their powers back. Personally, I don’t mind that they do. Sometimes, the skills and capacities that come from trauma can be useful as long as they are handled. I love the message that power and pain can come from the same place, that the key is how you use them. I love the message that the same powers we had to hammer into ourselves to survive our childhoods can be useful in adulthood as long as we have the capacity, when it matters, to put them down. I love the attempt - fuck, even the attempt - to tell a story that can contain trauma and danger and grief without being overwhelmed.
Basically, Encanto is a massive, glorious, mess, and I love it anyway, not in spite of its awkward, broken parts, but because of them. You should, too.
And if you’ve read this far, I’ve got a new book coming out in a few weeks which you might enjoy.