Disney is no stranger to exploring some heavier aspects of life. Many of their releases from the last couple of decades have reputations for being tear-jerkers. More recently, films like Tangled, Inside Out, and Soul unpack emotional abuse, gaslighting, trauma, and even consciousness and death. Encanto is another incredible addition to a long line of animated features that carry a deeper message.
Encanto is receiving rave reviews, and it seems to be appealing to adults as much as it is to kids. The message of familial generational trauma is striking a major chord for people across all demographics. The story chronicles the Madrigal family’s journey of escaping from their hometown in Colombia, which results in the sacrifice of the life of their patriarch Pedro. His love surrounds his family in a protection spell, creating a beautiful and abundant magical realm for them to live in. The magic also endows each of his children and subsequently their children with supernatural gifts, which are meant to be used to serve the community of townspeople that escaped with them. This puts pressure on Alma (María Cecilia Botero), the matriarch of the family who, in turn, pressures her children and grandchildren to live up to the legacy bestowed upon them. The co-occurrence of systemic trauma and generational trauma, the pressure that comes from living up to impossible expectations, and the conclusion that the characters are worth more than their gifts are what makes Encanto a captivating story and a very resonant and healing piece of art.
The unspecified political unrest that Pedro, Alma, and their three children are shown fleeing from not only began the cycle of generational trauma that Encanto chronicles but also may have traumatized the couple before Pedro ever lost his life. Most generational trauma comes from a systemic source. Things like poverty, addiction, the grief from death, war and political conflict, untreated mental illness due to a lack of access to proper healthcare can all traumatize individuals, and if unacknowledged, whether by choice or lack of access to help or information, that trauma can be carried into relationships and passed down to children. Losing a partner is incredibly painful in and of itself–but Abuela Alma also finds herself all-of-a-sudden being a single mother to triplets in a time of violent political conflict. One could see how she wouldn’t have had the chance to really deal with the fallout of losing her partner. It is implied that the lush and abundant encanto that the Madrigal family and their community reside in is protected from the outside world–and no one leaves that community throughout the whole movie. They seem to have everything they need within the rainforest walls. This could suggest that Abuela may have no idea if the conflict which brought them there ever ended. The threat of losing everything, of going back to a violent world, of facing all of that pain again, of seeing her children and grandchildren put in harm’s way, basically the threat of reliving the trauma of losing someone she loves ends up driving her toxicity.
This is common for traumatized people. The unconscious drive to get out of discomfort and create safety becomes the motivating factor for most unhealthy decisions. Alma is not immune to this kind of response. Once she discovers that her children have been endowed with supernatural gifts, she goes about mythologizing the family Madrigal and committing them to serve their community for generations to come. The Madrigals hold massive ceremonies around the fifth birthday of each child and grandchild, as that is when their gift will reveal itself. The gift is then put to use. Louisa’s (Jessica Darrow) superstrength is the most obvious example of this. She spends the whole movie carrying livestock, lifting buildings, and even bringing the piano into whatever room everyone else is in any time anyone wants to play it. At first, she seems happy to be of service and is definitely admirable for her strength. She seems to have one of the most balanced and grounded personalities and tends to be the voice of reason when everyone else is feeling a little dramatic. But with her song “Surface Pressure” the truth of her dysfunction is revealed. Despite being the literal strongest character, Louisa is the first to show signs of breakage. She is burnt out. And she isn’t sure she has any worth outside how useful she can be. The townspeople seem grateful to her for all her help–everything would certainly move a lot more slowly if she weren’t around to lend a bicep–but they don’t seem like the source of the pressure, they don’t seem to have expectations or feel entitled to her help. So, where is it coming from?
In toxic families there tends to be a hierarchy designed to keep the children in competition for a toxic parent’s favor–it may shift and change with time and fluctuating circumstances but the feeling of striving for love and affirmation is chronic. That isn’t exactly what’s happening here, Abuela isn’t so sinister or even aware of the kind of dynamic she’s created, but the children do seem to be treated with more favor the more useful their gifts are (or at least the more favorably they reflect on the family). Isabel (Diane Guerrero) is the perfect example of this. Main character Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) feels like she’s always coming up short compared to her perfect, pretty, feminine, everywhere-she-goes-she-makes-it-more-beautiful older sister. Isabel, likewise, feels annoyed with Mirabel’s absolute inability to act appropriately. What’s at play is more than just sibling rivalry. Isabel feels resentful of Mirabel’s freedom and Mirabel knows she’ll never be good enough in Abuela’s eyes, especially when compared to Isabel. In the end, though, it’s all an illusion, because it turns out sometimes Isabel just wants to create from her heart, even if it’s messy (or spiky). She also doesn’t want to marry the most handsome guy in town just because they’d “make a good match.” It turns out being “perfect” also comes with a lot of pressure.
This pattern of the hierarchy is also present in the triplets, Abuela’s grown children Julieta (Angie Cepeda), Pepa (Carolina Gaitan), and Bruno (John Leguizamo). Julieta can heal people with her cooking. This is, obviously, an incredibly useful skill and Julieta is seen serving the townspeople and her family throughout the whole film. Consequently, Julieta is also shown to be the most maternal, nurturing, and understanding member of the Madrigal family. Whenever Mirabel is feeling really down about not having a gift the way the rest of her family does, Julieta is the first one to tell her how great she is, gift or no gift. She is also the only one to attempt to stand up to Abuela for essentially ostracizing her own granddaughter. Pepa is as temperamental and dramatic as the storm clouds that sometimes hang over her head. Being able to affect the weather is a very useful tool, especially when the town is so reliant on farming and livestock for food, but she isn’t always as in control of her powers as she could be, and the weather reflects this. Abuela often seems exacerbated with Pepa’s inability to reign it in. The Madrigal family motto could be “make your family proud,” and the implication is that perfection is the only way to do that.
The real black sheep in the family comes in the form of Bruno, a clairvoyant with an edge. He is the goth Hot Topic teen of the family. He is also the perfect partner for Mirabel in her task of setting the Madrigals free from their cycle of generational trauma and restoring balance for her stressed-out and overworked family. Both Mirabel and Bruno have an innate truth-telling quality to them. The people in toxic families who play the role of truth-teller are often also the black sheep–they may be rejected, gaslit, and scapegoated for simply seeing things as they are. Before the audience meets him, Bruno is painted as this dark and malevolent warlock who purposefully ruined Pepa’s wedding, made sure Dolores was going to get her heartbroken, and even made a townsperson go bald! The audacity! But it turns out, he was just reporting what he saw–the truth. Or at least one possible future outcome. People came to Bruno asking to experience the benefits of his gift and then blamed him when he didn’t give them the answer they wanted. The most egregious of these people was Abuela, whose worst fears (losing the magic, losing everything) played out in Bruno’s vision. He felt so bad about hurting his family, that he took to hiding in the walls, stealing arepas for sustenance, and loving his family from afar. Even the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” speaks on the impulse of toxic families to sweep things under the rug instead of dealing with them. The facade of perfection is precarious and if one thing were to be addressed, everything would come crashing down. Enter, Mirabel.
The way generational trauma plays out is cyclical–results repeat until a pattern is brought into awareness and then properly dealt with and healed. Mirabel was headed down the same road as Bruno. Mirabel was also a truth-teller, and also triggered her grandmother’s fears. In Bruno’s vision, it was Mirabel who ended the magic, and destroyed their home. This knowledge put distance between Mirabel and Abuela from the start, even though she was just a child. When she didn’t receive a gift on her fifth birthday, she was solidified as a burden in Abuela’s eyes, and it showed. Most of the family refused to give Mirabel the benefit of the doubt, seeing the worst in her actions and concerns and refusing to help her in her quest to save the magic, or even acknowledge that there was a problem at all. For most of the film, despite having overwhelming pride in her family, in checking her own feelings of jealousy and insecurity in a way that is beyond her years, and in doing a lot of emotional labor for the surrounding adults, Mirabel remains on the outside of her own family. It’s profound the way that truth-tellers Bruno and Mirabel do end up being the cycle-breakers–the ones that disrupt the toxic dynamic and alchemize it into something more sustainable, healthier, and more honest.
When the magic disappears and the house falls down, when Abuela’s worst fears come to fruition–when she’s been confronted by the consequences of her actions by having Mirabel spell out how she’s been hurt–how they’ve all been hurt–by her grandmother’s expectations, something wonderful happens. The townspeople show up for the family that has given them everything by chipping in and helping them rebuild their home. One characteristic of codependency is an inability to receive love, care, and comfort, because of a lifetime of over-giving in order to receive love. The moment where the Madrigals are put in a position to receive shows Abuela the true magic of what she has created. It’s not just magic, not just her family, it’s a community. Every member of the Madrigal family (Abuela included) ends up learning the lesson that they have more to offer than their gifts or their job–that they are multifaceted human beings with a full range of experience. They deserve rest, comfort, joy, love, acceptance, and to be flawed and imperfect and free. Abuela’s confrontation with Mirabel, Bruno, and the song “All of You” allows Abuela to reflect on her life and see how she let her fears and trauma get in the way of her love for her family, which was what created the magic in the first place. In the end, Abuela forgives herself and the magic returns to the encanto, and they all lived happily ever after.