‘Encanto’ Celebrates Family and Community
Catholic commentators assess the refreshing themes of the latest Disney movie.
“Did Disney just make the most Christian movie ever?”
Professor and author Jessica Hooten Wilson, sitting beside her children in the theater, found herself “completely shocked” at the animated movie Encanto unfolding in front of her. It wasn’t forcing its protagonist to become totally autonomous or preaching a need to save oneself as she had seen in Disney movies past. Instead, she found an abundance of Christian symbolism.
Encanto, nominated for two Academy Awards, “Best Animated Feature” and “Best Original Score,” tells the story of Mirabel, a young Colombian woman facing the difficulty of being the only member of her family lacking magical powers. In her attempts to love her family well, she confronts the apparently wavering strength of her family’s magic and the judgment of her abuela (grandmother).
Directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush knew they didn’t want the story to extend beyond the home and the multigenerational family within it.
“The idea of bringing in these gifts, telling the story inspired by magical realism, allowed it to elevate, allowed us to do something visually that only animation could do,” Bush said, according to Deadline. “And that was the really exciting plus part. But that foundation in true family dynamics was the most important thing.”
In a clip included in a home-video release of the movie, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke about the crucial themes of family within the story.
“We really wanted to say, 'What happens if we can capture the complexity of a family?’” Miranda, of Hamilton fame, said. “I think, especially in Latin cultures, family is so important. I come from a big family, everyone I know comes from a big family, so we wanted to be able to capture that complexity in an animated world.
Father Juan Ochoa, director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and pastor at Christ the King Church, similarly emphasized the authentic depiction of Latin family culture within the movie.
“When we say family, especially in the Latino community, we don’t just refer to our immediate family. We’re referring to our uncles or aunts or grandparents,” Father Ochoa told the Register. “Two thousand years ago, that was Jesus’ context about family.”
Love of Family
The first few times Encanto played in author and radio-show host Katie Prejean McGrady’s home, she was doing chores and paying it little mind. When she did sit down to watch it in its entirety, her 4-year-old daughter at her side, she was struck by how intensely family-oriented the film was.
“This was a story about a family, living all together in this magical house, deeply aware of one another’s gifts and flaws, and that was intensely relatable, even with the magical gift element,” McGrady told the Register. “I found myself understanding and relating to the conflicts and resolutions of the movie far more than I have with any Disney princess movie.”
She loved what the film illustrated to her children: They can thrive, heal and grow, all as a family. She appreciated seeing a story that looked like her own family’s play out on screen.
“Messy, imperfect, but fiercely protective and trying to figure it out as best we can,” she said.
The representation of married couples and portrayal of the men, specifically, also differed from what Disney typically displays. In their limited screen time, the married couples indicate strong, loving dynamics within their relationships that allow them to complement each other well.
The grandfather sacrifices his life to save his family from physical danger, an uncle encourages his wife while also challenging her, and Mirabel’s father stands up for his daughter when Abuela dismisses her. Their roles are more significant and serious than usually seen in Disney media, which often makes male characters into punchlines.
Discovery of Identity
Father Ochoa pointed out that the film also displays generational trauma that Abuela causes by refusing to face the shock she experienced after her husband’s death, which goes on to affect her children and grandchildren.
“Being able to save anybody, even yourself, doesn't work in this film,” Wilson told the Register. “Everything starts breaking apart when someone tries to do that, when the grandmother thinks that she can work to earn a miracle and earn grace.”
That theme opposes the typical cultural narrative, Wilson explained, that pushes a kind of “workspace dignity” — the idea that what you do gives you worth as a human being.
“The miracle is you,” Abuela croons at the end of the movie. “Not some gift, just you.”
“We need these kinds of films to show us a life that is worth living,” Wilson said. “And if we continually have films that lie to us, that the only life worth living is the one in which we consume the most, we are selfish, we only look out for ourselves, we write our own stories — all of those lies, those kinds of films and books — we will have the culture that we have now: We’re polarized. We’re divided; we’re selfish; we’re violent.”
The miracle behaves as an allegory for grace — freely given, the Madrigal family can receive and cooperate with it, but when they try to earn it, their attempts cause a rift between both themselves and the “magic,” as well as one another.
“That’s something we can say about this movie, from the Catholic perspective: It’s not ignoring the spiritual life of the people,” Father Ochoa said. “We focus on just what we’re able to perceive through our five senses, but in this movie, there’s recognition that there’s something more in life than just what’s functional and mechanical.”
In a connection to Encanto, Wilson, who teaches at University of Dallas, referenced a line in a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest-poet: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places.”
There’s diversity and multiplicity of gifts within the Church, Wilson explained.
Everyone cannot be hands, or eyes, or heads, because that causes a loss of the whole Body of Christ. The relationships within the film indicate the necessity of everyone having a different role.
Love of Neighbor
According to Wilson, Encanto portrays Abuela and Mirabel carrying on the flame of something beautiful and necessary to the next generation, rather than just authoring their own stories.
“That’s where it begins: family,” Wilson said. “That’s where your knowledge of who you are and why you’re here and what you’re doing in the world comes from.”
Wilson observed that as Mirabel helps her family discover how to see themselves, she does so from an understanding that identity can’t be wholly defined apart from other people.
“We often forget we belong to other people,” Wilson said simply. “We’re responsible for one another.”
McGrady admired Mirabel’s character, who continually portrays the importance of being supportive, loving and steady for the people she loves.
“It’s a beautiful snapshot of empathy and the gift of presence and the virtue of kindness that we can bring to others’ lives,” McGrady said, “and how often it’s when we are present to those we know best, our family, we can come to thrive and love each other well.”
Many children’s movies focus on main characters whose quests require them to conquer the problem at hand on their own in some way, McGrady said, but Mirabel’s burden requires the aid of community.
“The Madrigal family is the anchor of the community. Families are the anchor of society,” McGrady said. “If our families are healthy, and holy, we can only hope that seeps into the world and the culture we’re creating.”