By Hannah Matis
A year ago — was it only a year ago? — Pixar released Soul, with its gorgeous evocation of an African-American neighborhood in New York rather unexpectedly intersected by souls’ transmigrations before and after death. Heading into 2022, we now have Encanto from Disney, an equally stunning feat of animation supported by the songwriting talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Encanto is a tale far more in the vein of Moana than Soul, and as such, is less explicitly religious or existential in the story it tells, but like Moana, the structure of Encanto is driven by powerful, if implicit, theological images and themes. Given that it shows every sign of becoming the sort of film that at least some members of your congregation will soon be able to recite verbatim, it seems worth taking a moment to draw these out. If it inspires you to make arepas de queso as well, so much the better.
Regarding spoilers: I am writing on the assumption that most readers, particularly those with children in a pandemic, have either seen the film already, which is streaming on Disney+, or have had the soundtrack playing more or less continuously in the background of their lives for the last several weeks. If this is not the case, it will soon be clear that this is a very difficult film to talk about in any depth without revealing at least some of the plot: even more than is usual with Disney, in this film, character is plot, and the plot exists only to reveal character.
Arguably the main character of Encanto is not Mirabel, our heroine, but her collective Family Madrigal, all three generations of it. Everyone, or mostly everyone, is introduced in the opening musical number, which Lin-Manuel Miranda acknowledges was inspired by the village scene from Beauty and the Beast. A young Colombian couple had fled their home with their still-infant triplets, only to be pursued as they cross a river. The husband, sacrificing his own life to protect his family, opens the way to a hidden valley, Encanto, lighting a magical candle for his widow which, over time, revealed special powers in each of the family’s children. Except, that is, for one: the unfortunately and ironically christened Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, who viewers probably will not recognize as the dour Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn 99). The magic of the Madrigals permeates even their house, Casita, and has come to define their place in village society—how the village came to exist within its hidden valley is never entirely explained by the film, but I digress. The catastrophe of Mirabel’s gift-less-ness, revealed some years before, had deeply frightened the matriarch of the family, Mirabel’s grandmother, Abuela Alma, and cast a pall over their subsequent relationship. At the time, Alma’s son Bruno (“we don’t talk about Bruno…”) had also had a vision of calamity associated with Mirabel, but he had then mysteriously vanished.
For the moment, however, everything and everyone chez Madrigal is determinedly fine, and it is a considerable way into the film before the audience can put even these pieces of the family backstory together. At the beginning, Mirabel, too, is still trying hard, compensating cheerfully for her lack of magic as best she can; depicted with glasses, she is also very obviously a “maker,” crafting toys and decorating her own clothes. More subtly, even more than her mother the cook, Mirabel is portrayed as doing what we might call the “emotional labor” required to connect disparate individuals who are often preoccupied by the nature of their own gifts. What is agonizingly apparent, though, is that the loving and selfless Mirabel is, at best, a second-class citizen in her own gifted family, a kind of spiritual Cinderella. Her desire to find some answers to the impending trouble she is certain is coming only exacerbates her further collective scapegoating by that family. Dismissed as attention-seeking and hysterical, the more Mirabel uncovers about the past, the more vulnerable each member of the family and their gifts seem to be, and the more autocratic Abuela Alma, the Roman-nosed matriarch, threatens to become.
This of course is all very complicated for a Disney movie. That the story is able to unfold coherently, with all its zigs and zags and in two languages to boot, is a kind of testament in and of itself to the strength of the telling. Complexity is usually not as much a problem for children, who love a challenge, as much as one might expect; it may well be that Encanto is hardest to watch for the adults, for many reasons. In contrast with Moana, whose eponymous character leaves her village behind quite early in the film, Mirabel wants desperately to remain in hers and finds it difficult or impossible to understand her own identity outside or beyond her family.
Disney’s signature message of loving and valuing oneself — American individualism in a princess dress — does stand slightly at odds with the rest of a film which is deliberately working with different cultural expectations of the individual and the extended family. How one is to go about valuing oneself, when one’s worth derives from service to the family and the family does not acknowledge one’s service, is a riddle whose solution Encanto can only hopefully, and perhaps naively, suggest. The family Madrigal is, if anything, matriarchal in its internal power structure — an interesting and deliberate choice which, like many fairy tales, tends to set women against one another. Ironically, I was so fascinated and moved by the film’s depiction of the complexities of family birth order, scapegoating, and even the basics of family systems theory, that I felt its resolution happened almost a little too quickly and easily — although I admit my version of the film would have taken much longer than ninety minutes.
Interestingly, there is a priest in the village, although he is completely overshadowed and arguably made irrelevant by the existence of his magical neighbors. All he is actually seen to do is to complain in one song about his hair loss; in other words, his presence is largely cultural. Far more potently religious, however, is the downright Christological symbolism of Mirabel’s grandfather’s self-sacrifice and the magical power thereby released through his death. How this power, which literally moves mountains, is supposed to work within the parameters of the story is never actually explained in any kind of detail; the magic simply is, taking a bewildering diversity of forms and gifts, within the living family. And it, um, resurrects, if the plethora of butterflies throughout Encanto had not already given you a clue about where the film was heading — more specifically, it resurrects amidst seeming apocalypse.
On a related note, the close identification, obvious to the viewer if not immediately to the characters in the film, between Mirabel, the ensouled — ahem, animated — house Casita, and the living spirit of the family, is downright Marian and ecclesiological; it can potentially show our more Protestant colleagues just how easy it is for the one to bleed into the other. If you read Moana as a parable about messiahs and the resurrection of the world, Encanto is much more about the transformation and resurrection of family and community — in other words, about the church. So much of the drama of the film is about representation, belonging and value within community, about drawing in and uniting each member of the body into one family, and as a consequence, there is an almost liturgical quality to everything that takes place within Casita, even before the denouement.
A passage in the Apocalypse (2:17) promises to the faithful dead a white stone with a new and secret name, a new and secret identity which the soul will possess. It is a long-standing feature of both theology and speculative fiction about purgatory that the soul will grow into its fully mature form, imperfectly realized in its earthly existence and perhaps even very different from what it once had been in life. From the Middle English Pearl poet, who sees his beloved little daughter grown into the glorious adult she should have become in life, to Dante’s visionary Beatrice, to Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, Macdonald’s Lilith, Lewis’s Great Divorce, or George Mackay Brown’s “Brig o’ Dread” (most recently invoked by Rowan Williams in his introduction to Luminaries), there is the hope that the healing of our souls will bring about their transformation, and when we are ready, that of our resurrected bodies within a renewed creation. From a white stone, a pillar in the temple of our Lord, a precious stone in the foundation of the New Jerusalem, to wondrous gifts and a door in Casita in the secret world of Encanto: surely it is not so very far across the river, after all.