“Open your eyes.”
These are the first words we hear in Disney’s Encanto. They are repeated in its most defining song, All of You, towards the end. In Encanto, the themes of home, family and community are prominent, and so is the pride one has within them; all are sites of intimate caring. If you look a little deeper, the central themes are migration, grief, violence within the family, and toxic positivism. I haven’t thought about an animated movie from a major film studio so vividly since Wall-e, Inside Out, and Coco. All three are poignant films about families or not being perfect in their peculiar ways. While ‘migration,’ ‘therapy’, and ‘memory studies’ are also very significant themes of Encanto, I will focus on ‘ensuring futurity through perfection and repetition of norms,’ which is how queer people might read or interpret the film.
Throughout the film, Encanto tells the story of Alma Madrigal, referred to as Abuela, who lost her husband while they escaped from an armed conflict. In the moment of Pedro Madrigal’s (Abuelo’s) death, she is blessed with a miracle that creates an Encanto, away from the evil forces that took away her home and her Pedro. This miracle bestows magical gifts in a generational manner on her three children– Pepa, who can control the weather, Bruno, who sees future visions; and Julieta, whose food can heal wounds.
Their children Luisa, Isabela, Mirabel (from the marriage between Julieta and Augustín), Dolores, Camilo, and Antonio (from the marriage between Pepa and Félix) also receive gifts except for Mirabel. Luisa has flower power. Like literally, she embodies femininity, beauty and perfection. Isabela is the brawns in the family, Dolores can hear everything, Camilo can shapeshift like other persons, and Antonio receives his gift during the gift ceremony in the film.
Mirabel, however, receives no gift and struggles to find a place within the family. At the same time, Abuela nurtures the community that has grown in the Encanto through the excellent use of her children’s and grandchildren’s gifts. The opening song, The Family Madrigal, is an apt introduction to the family where Mirabel sings about how everyone is a star who shines differently as part of a constellation. Towards the film’s end, she sings about how stars don’t shine. They burn. And constellations shift, singing the message, “You’re more than just your gift.”
Bruno says in the movie, “you can’t hurry the future.” The Encanto in Encanto was sure perfect but also broken, mainly from the outer world. And that’s a more significant challenge, to find a place within the external world whilst also keeping our own and community’s identity intact. It’s similar to how queer and polyamorous people feel when they resist monogamy, or queer people feel when they resist cisheteronormativity.
The Cost of Futurity is Conformity
Encanto has explicit power dynamics where Abuela, the family’s matriarch, ensures everyone uses their gift to help the community. But, at what expense? It mentions keeping the miracle burning through generations – i.e. providing futurity. There are costs to ensuring futurity, the first one of which is conformity to our roles, much like queer people are forced to conform to the heteronormative script. Isabela agrees to marry Mariano only to strengthen the community, do it for the family, and extend it. And characters like Luisa and Isabela are no different, as they’re forced to fit into their gender-typed roles as well – being a strong woman, and embodying perfect, ideal womanhood, respectively.
While Abuela rules with an iron fist to ensure her community’s well-being, making plans for everyone for the day, proudly proclaiming – “La Familia Madrigal!” But what she forgets is that the miracle was for her family. She remembers it when she realises she is on the verge of losing everything again. The way Abuela’s grief is portrayed is perhaps the part where the film is at its most vulnerable. And that is a moment of realisation for all of us to think about the ways we care for others – the strictness, or the possessiveness, if it’s keeping us restricted to a particular space. And what vestiges we carry through transgenerational trauma. Going through the grief of losing something or someone might make us more vigilant, so much that we put up rigid walls, but they have to come down sometime; otherwise, they just break down slowly, crack by crack.
Being an Outcast and Subversion of Tropes
The song Waiting for a Miracle, sung by Mirabel, explores the feeling of being an outcast. While there can be a queer reading of this, it’s more than that. In today’s world, ensuring futurity is something everyone struggles with, as no one is fine and times are uncertain. Most of us are constantly moving, “always walking alone and always wanting more.” But futurity is essential, especially for a community, as it directly shapes their identity. In fact, by being an outcast, Mirabel carries the futurity of Bruno, who was also an outcast in the family.
To a fair extent, there is also subversion of Disney movie tropes and cliches within the movie. It shows the sibling love between Mirbel and Antonio and Mirabel and Luisa. At the same time, it shows sibling rivalry and sisterhood as Isabela and Mirabel are constantly at odds with each other, but they belt out the anthem. What else can I do? together. There are no princesses or villains in the movie. There are actual people as characters. That’s where representation matters, especially for people and children from Columbia. There is no good versus evil or a lousy ‘family is everything’ story. There’s just a family whose members are different and broken, and they’re trying to keep their family up and community up, but the care is only one way – towards the community.
Everyone has a peculiar relationship with the house, instead of house objects being living characters like Toy Story or Beauty and The Beast. And there is something special here, in having a relationship with the space one lives in. It has been brilliantly portrayed in shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, and in both, characters similarly lost their home in some ways. My mother has a particular affinity with the home space, and I have a similar relationship with the area around me, especially my room. Every character has its own unique space. In Encanto, it extends to the community, while caring for them unconditionally. And the absence of transactional nature does impact the community itself. This is restored in the end when everyone comes together to rebuild the Casita.
Taking a Dig at Patriarchy
The music is as fantastic as it could get. Only a genius like Lin-Manuel Miranda can deliver musicals like Encanto, Tick, Tick…Boom! and In the Heights, all in the same year. Surface Pressure is the hustle culture anthem, and also the one that points out the burden of patriarchy is on women, which stands true in the movie as well since it’s the women who do most of the work in the film and the movie’s songs revolve around their true self coming up. It’s evident when Luisa sings –
It exposes our obsession with the perfection of women in patriarchy and queer people within cisheteronormative settings. It’s the second media after Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, and Adventure Time aimed at children with a beautiful exploration of complex themes and emotions, specifically around one’s identity and relation to the people and space. In the footsteps of Frozen, Encanto drops the marriage trope as well, as the only scheduled marriage doesn’t take place in the film and on Mariano’s proposal, Dolores simply responds – “Slow down.” The now worldwide and iconic hit We don’t talk about Bruno points to how families conveniently leave no space for discussing specific topics, including the violence we inflict on each other while caring for them to keep family intact.
You’re Your Gift
Perhaps, some of the lessons from Encanto are when Abuela, towards the end of the movie, sings to Mirabel:
Then much like in the beginning, she sings – “Open your eyes…what do you see?”. Mirabel responds – “I see me…all of me”. And that’s the tear-jerking moment and, in a way, the lesson of the movie – don’t be so comprised of what your future would be like that you lose the sense of who you are now. While these might seem childish at first, they’re crucial when aimed at children. And the fact that adults like me can find resemblance within these substantiates why we need more such exploration.
The task of ensuring futurity by repetition of tasks and roles (Butler!) is a taxing one, and forcing it will only lead to breakdowns. While Disney still plays on stereotypes and mere reversal of them for the characters of Isabela and Luisa are debatable, I do feel that they are good enough for media consumed by children, as has been evident through viral news about young children finding resemblances in little Antonio with curly hair or Mirabel with spectacles. Although on the queer front, Disney needs to learn a lot more and be more upfront.
Encanto is a lovely endeavour around identity, family, belongingness, transgenerational trauma and futurity in all its unique ways. It excels at portraying complex emotions and themes through magical realism, accurate representation and toe-tapping musical numbers.
By Rajeev Anand Kushwah (Columnist)
Rajeev Anand Kushwah (he/they) is a Queer Bahujan Gender Studies Scholar at TISS, Mumbai. A writer at queer feminist media platforms, he is also an overthinker, a self-proclaimed chef, and a poet. He was recently awarded the non-fiction grant by Mavelinadu Collective. He research areas include queer experiences, feminist ethics of care, and pop culture.