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In defense of ‘Encanto’ from Christian critics

Encanto
Walt Disney Animation Studios

The trailers for “Encanto” never interested me. In fact, I busied myself with other matters when my family first watched the film. And when I did finally see it myself, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it.

I could appreciate its artistry, but I didn’t consider it something worth repeat viewing. The rest of my family, however, fell in the love with the story from the get-go, and with each successive watch, I have come to appreciate it more and more.

Strangely enough, the more I have grown in my love for this movie, the more I’ve heard from my film-critic friends (I am blessed to know a handful) whose responses to the film have ranged from indifference to forceful opposition. The more negative opinions I hear, the more motivated I’ve become to share why I think “Encanto” warrants more appreciation and less criticism — especially from Christian audiences.

Before we go any further, I need to make a couple of clarifications. First, I am not the biggest fan of Disney as of late. Many of the conglomerate’s business practices and ideological leanings rub me wrong. So when people lob critiques at the company, I’m not the first to rush to Mickey’s defense. This case is an exception to the rule.

Second, attention must be drawn to the songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. They may not be to everyone’s tastes, but Miranda does something strikingly original (for a Disney film, at least): he weaves melodic phrases and lyrics throughout the movie so that a snippet of one song will show up in another.

There is a thematic continuity among the musical numbers, where each relies on the others for its full and complete expression. The interconnectivity between the songs provides a rich musical tapestry, rewarding each successive viewing with additional insights on what that particular line means, why this particular sentiment is phrased exactly like it is, or why that musical measure appears in that particular section of the song. A proper evaluation of “Encanto” must take into account the wealth of information included in the film’s musical numbers.

Fair warning: the following analysis contains spoilers galore. You would do well to watch the film before reading any further.

As I see it, most of the serious objections to “Encanto” are based on a mischaracterization of Abuela, the matriarchal figure, as the functional villain. Abuela may be an antagonist in a technical sense (in that she opposes Mirabel, the heroin, on nearly every step of her journey), but she is not the antagonist in the sense of being a villain, or heavy, or “bad guy.”

The movie doesn’t have a villain in the traditional sense, choosing rather to find conflict in family relationship tensions. Imagining Abuela as the film’s functional villain morphs her character into something it is not and warps the narrative intent of the filmmakers.

If there is a functional villain (from the standpoint of the characters in the story, at least), it is Bruno, the self-exiled son of Abuela. We find out, of course, that Bruno is not a bad guy. Far from it. If anything, he plays the crucial role of mentor in Mirabel’s “mission quest thing” (so to speak). For much of the film, however, the Madrigal family operates as if Bruno is a bad guy, emphasizing their memories of him with the lime-green colors of traditional Disney villains in the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” (We’ll discuss Bruno more in a bit.)

For her part, Abuela is a character who has failed to properly deal with the loss of her husband for the last 50 years. Grasping at the memory she has of him (personified by their wedding candle, which has been transformed into a dispenser of magical gifts), she has dedicated her life to “keep the miracle burning,” controlled by her fear of losing anyone or anything else.

This reality is illustrated throughout the movie. For one, she repeatedly dons a black shawl, stuck in a cycle of unending grief. For another, the song “Dos Oruguitas” (“Two Caterpillars”), which plays over her backstory, includes the repeated refrain “Don’t you hold on too tight,” since both she and her husband (the “caterpillars” of the song) must part ways and be reunited later.

The melody for “Dos Oruguitas” plays under Abuela’s part in the film’s opening number, “The Family Madrigal,” hinting thematically at what is controlling her — an insistence on “hold[ing] on too tight” and refusing to let her husband go. She confesses as much in the song, “All of You”:

And I’m sorry I held on too tight
Just so afraid I’d lose you too
The miracle is not some magic that you’ve got
The miracle is you, not some gift, just you
The miracle is you

Abuela first comes to this realization when she has returned to the river where she lost her husband. It is here where the song “Dos Oruguitas” stops referring to her as a caterpillar and starts referring to her as a butterfly, underscoring the reality that Abuela is crawling out of the cocoon of her grief-infused fears, which enables her to love her children and grandchildren for who they are, not how they can help her keep a precarious balance ignoring family problems for the sake of a mirage she heretofore has failed to relinquish.

It is this understanding of Abuela’s character arc that informs and clarifies the narrative beats of the rest of the film.

The paradox of an 'earned' salvation

For example, Abuela’s refusal to accept the loss of her husband, and the literal salvation obtained by his self-sacrifice, leads her to view the magical gifts her family has received into an achievement they have acquired. In religious language, she has turned salvation by grace into salvation by works.

This paradigm of earning salvation through self-effort underscores her entire demeanor, as well as the standard she imposes upon her children and grandchildren: “Make your family proud.” As the story shows, this standard is proving, over time, to slowly suffocate her family. Those under the matriarch’s rule are buckling under the weight of her expectations.

Abuela’s lofty standards are shown, not only in her words and actions but also in many of “Encanto’s” songs. During the opening number, as we have already seen, Abuela sings about how the family must “earn the miracle” they have received. Hers is a paradigm that requires nothing less than perfection from its adherents.

And sure enough, when Mirabel sings about her two older sisters, she shows how Abuela’s mindset has infiltrated her own thinking: “My older sisters…[are] perfect in every way”; and “The beauty [Isabela] and the brawn [Luisa] do no wrong.” That’s the expectation passed down from Abuela: absolute perfection.

This expectation is recognized with frustration by both Luisa and Isabela in their respective songs. In “Surface Pressure,” Luisa focuses mostly on the pressure placed on her specifically (“I feel,” “I can’t,” “I fail,” etc.), but she also mentions how the entire family feels the same weight (“we measure this growing pressure,” “all we know is pressure”).

Similarly, in “What Else Can I Do?” Isabela sings how she makes “perfect, practiced poses,” but after accidentally creating her first cactus (instead of roses), she says, “It’s not symmetrical or perfect,” and adds later, “What could I do if I just knew it didn’t need to be perfect?”

The demand from an authority figure to be perfect — which Isabela clearly experiences throughout the film — is a burden no child can bear without pride (in the face of perceived success) or despondency (in the face of perceived failure). (Interestingly enough, as we get to know these characters, Isabela demonstrates the former, while Luisa demonstrates the latter.)

The burden of Abuela’s expectations is felt by her family members, even if it’s not fully understood. No less than three of Abuela’s grandchildren try to convince themselves in song form that they are fine: Mirabel tells herself (unconvincingly), “I'm fine, I am totally fine” (in “Waiting on a Miracle”), and both Dolores and Isabela insist (unconvincingly), “I’m fine!” (in “We Don’t Talk about Bruno”). There are relational problems within the family Madrigal, but those problems are being neither acknowledged nor addressed.

So when Isabela is finally able to confess the burden of the façade she’s been keeping up (to make her family proud), it enables her to create more than just roses: now she can create cacti, jacarandas, figs, vines, a Palma de Cera, tabebuia, and so on.

This newfound creativity is not just simply another example of our culture’s hyper-individualized, “follow your heart” indoctrination; it is not the result of Isabela rejecting her gift for the purpose of self-expression to the detriment of her family. Rather, her newfound creativity is the expression of her freedom from what is essentially works-righteousness. This freedom allows her to utilize her gift more fully. She is finally experiencing what it’s like to live outside of the crushing burden of her grandmother’s unrealistic expectations.

A manly woman and unmanly men?

Before evaluating a few key thematic applications of “Encanto,” there are a couple of specific critiques I wish to briefly address. Both of them have to do with gender roles.

First is the character design of Luisa. With a large and muscular build, she is considered by some to be an assault on reality, and a subtle and intentional effort by Disney to substitute masculinity for femininity. While I can understand where this criticism comes from (I don’t think it’s being pulled entirely out of thin air), I haven’t found the supporting evidence for a literal conspiracy to be convincing. The most glaring hole in this argument is the fact that it was Luisa’s artists — not Disney executives — that pushed for her particular body build. In fact, Luisa’s character designers had to fight Disney for their vision of Luisa’s character, as the studio pushed for a more petite design.

Second, is the role of men in the film. Some consider each and every male character to be passive, sidelined and lacking any real agency. While I can see traces of evidence that would lead some to such a conclusion, I don’t think that does justice to the full scope of these characters’ personalities.

Mirabel’s father (and mother) actively work to protect and encourage their daughter. They remind Mirabel (in what appears to be a daily, or at least a repeated, ritual), “Remember, you have nothing to prove.” And when the father, Agustín, is confronted by Abuela about keeping Bruno’s vision a secret, with her saying, “You should have told me right away — think about the family,” he doesn’t back down: “I was thinking about my daughter!”

Mirabel’s uncle, Félix, shows obvious affection for his family, and persistent patience with his emotionally fraught, storm-causing wife, Pepa. This patience is shown in at least a couple of places. First, when Pepa is singing about how Bruno ruined her wedding day, Félix sings along with her, and when she complains about Bruno’s actions, the natural thing would have been for Félix to agree with her. And yet he gently pushes back against her soiled memory of the day by singing, “What a joyous day, but anyway.”

Her sentiments don’t exactly match his, and he’s not afraid to (gently) push back. And near the end of the movie, when Bruno clarifies his words to Pepa on her wedding day (singing, “I wanted you to know that your bro loves you so”), Félix responds with, “That’s what I’m always saying.”

Then, of course, there’s Bruno. He’s absent for much of the film, but it is his vision, and his encouragement of Mirabel that propels the story forward, enabling Mirabel to find the solution to the disintegration of their home, Casa Madrigal (or Casita).

And while it’s even been said that the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” could be a clandestine way of the filmmakers saying, “We don’t talk about men,” the reality is that everyone involved in singing that song is shown to be wrong — utterly and completely wrong. Not talking about Bruno (and, if you so choose to believe, not talking about men in general) is a mistake based on misinformation. In the end, the characters do talk about — and love and celebrate — Bruno. And rightly so.

Not to mention, of course, the single and greatest act of selfless love shown in the entire movie: when Pedro — a man — sacrifices his life for the good of his family. His actions not only save Abuela and her three newborns but also usher in the miracle that protects them throughout the rest of the film. Pedro is a man who chooses not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In short, if not for the men of “Encanto,” there would be no “Encanto.”

Grief and grace and growth, oh my!

As it seems was intended by the filmmakers, “Encanto” acts as an exploration of a wrong response to grief and loss. As not intended by the filmmakers, “Encanto” can illustrate numerous distinctly Christian themes as well. We will briefly explore just three.

First, and as hinted at earlier, the story illustrates the difference between law and Gospel, between the freedom of grace and the bondage of legalism. As a friend of mine puts it in an online discussion: “[T]he more [the Madrigals] drift away from the joy and unity [the miracle] intended to bring to the family… the more harm they suffer in their relationships and souls. It is when they stop trying to be perfect for the sake of maintaining the miracle that they really experience peace and enjoy it.”

Second, Encanto acts as an adept examination of the Church and spiritual gifts. Just as the Madrigals emphasized their more demonstratively magical members (Isabela and Luisa), so can the church prioritize the more flashy gifts (prophecy, healings, etc.) at the expense of more “mundane” gifts (mercy, administration, etc.). And yet, as the body of Christ, we all need each other. As 1 Corinthians 12:22 points out, “[T]hose members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.”

There should be no division within the church between “special” and “not special” members and gifts: “there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (v. 25).

Third, Encanto shows how God can use suffering to correct our priorities and provide us with what we really need rather than what we think we need. When we petition God to help us grow in faith and love and every grace, He often answers by inserting trials into our lives and showing us more of our sin. This brings us to the end of ourselves, which drives us closer to God and enables us to enjoy and glorify him more.

In the same vein, Abuela prays (so to speak) the following: “Open my eyes. If the answer is here, help me find it. Help me protect our family.” What she doesn’t realize is that she is the one damaging her family. Mirabel’s actions disrupt Abuela’s overbearing and precarious control, razing the matriarch’s misaligned priorities (and the family’s home) to the ground. The answer to Abuela’s prayer feels at first like the opposite of what she wants, and yet it is exactly what she needs. She asked for protection, and what she receives is an awareness of her sin, leading to repentance, absolution, and the rebuilding of the family (and their home) on a new and better foundation. What better protection could there be for her family than that?

A charming and magical gift

“Encanto” is not a perfect film. Certain story beats stretch credibility, certain character arcs are relegated to song lyrics, and one particular resolution (related to the infamous Bruno) feels rushed. Nevertheless, and especially after multiple viewings, the film’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

“Encanto” is a charming break from the Disney mold, beautifully (albeit, inadvertently) promoting a distinctly Christian understanding of the world in a kaleidoscope of narrative elements, the likes of which have not been seen in a Disney film in years — if not decades.

Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He has been blogging at capstewart.com since 2006.

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