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Encanto and the Miracle of Empathy

One of the reasons I love fantasy as a genre is because of the inclusion of magic. In fantasy stories—the good ones anyway—magic can reveal the spiritual realities that we all sense in life but can’t see, and have no material frame to express.

The trees of Fangorn Forest groan, and shudder, and come to life, and we the readers call it “magic,” but we know the truth. There is something alive when you walk in a forest—something deep, something old, and sometimes dark. Leeli Wingfeather’s song reaches out to her family in shimmering strands that burn through the earth, and we call it “magic”—but many a mother I’ve heard tell how she sat up in the dead of night knowing that her child was in trouble, and many a friend I’ve called with a sudden burden to pray for them, to find that they were facing a trial and needed help. We know the truth. Something deeper connects us than blood and bone and dirt and stone. The stories that do it well gesture to the reality that’s beyond our sight, bringing it to the forefront so that we can ponder it together.

Encanto is such a story. Set in the mountains of Colombia, it follows the multi-generational Madrigal family, blessed with a miracle that brings their house to life and bestows each child with a magical gift. Except, that is, for our protagonist Mirabel, who never received a gift. Here, I expected the familiar ugly duckling tale, where the overlooked kid resents her special family and heads out on a journey to prove her worth, only to discover “that the real gift was inside her all along!” I was delighted to find that wasn’t the story at all. Instead, we’re given the story of a girl inextricably interwoven with and impacted by her place and history, even and perhaps especially the parts she doesn’t know.

Perhaps I ought to have known that immediately, since the movie opens with Abuela telling Mirabel their family’s story—how they were forced to flee their home and lost her husband, but in their darkest moment were given a miracle that allowed them to start a new life. Abuela took up the literal and figurative mantle as head of the family and the village, and guides the Madrigals to use their gifts in service of the community. As she sings in the opening song:

We swear to always help those around us

And earn the miracle that somehow found us

The miracle that the Madrigals have been gifted is represented by a glowing candle that never goes out. It gives them a magic house and special gifts, and unites them in purpose. But we quickly learn that all is not well. The magic is dying—seemingly beginning with the absence of Mirabel’s gift. The story centers on Mirabel and Abuela both trying to protect the magic, and clashing in their differing approaches on how best to do so.

Abuela wants to present a strong front to the family and town, believing that if they all just buckle down and use their gifts to the right ends, then they’ll be safe:

The town keeps growing, the world keeps turning But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning And each new generation must keep the miracle burning —”The Family Madrigal,” Encanto

Removed from the upbeat melody of the song, which is sung before we know that the magic is in danger, the stress in those lines is more easily apparent. “The magic is strong,” Abuela repeats over and over again to the town, in defiance of the cracks they can all see working their way through the foundation of their home. Mirabel’s approach is to dig deeper and deeper into what’s going on, believing that if she can find the source of the cracks then she can stop it. As she digs, she unearths family secrets, hidden shame, and the pain and insecurities behind the strong and happy facades of each of her family members. The cracks continue to spread; the family’s gifts start malfunctioning.

We who are following Mirabel in her quest can see how each member of the family is fighting in their own way to protect and preserve what they’ve built and how Mirabel’s connections with each person are strengthening the magic. But Abuela comes to believe that Mirabel’s digging is what’s causing the cracks to spread, which leads to a confrontation between them where they each accuse the other of breaking the family and killing the miracle. In that moment, the earth splits between them, their home crumbles around them, the new generation scrambles to save the candle, and Mirabel—who alone manages to reach it—cradles it in her hands amidst the dusty wreckage of their united lives as the flame flickers out.

We the viewers call it “magic,” but we know the truth: that there is some burning core at the center of a family that connects each member to another, and which we fight to preserve. It’s a tangible thing with its own gravitational force, and when something’s wrong—when that central connection is unraveling and something is dying—we can feel it, as surely as a sickness in our own blood. We know it can be threatened. We know it can die. And seldom do we understand what kills it.

During the peak of their confrontation, the mountains that guarded their home split, opening for the first time the way back to the place from which Abuela and her village fled. At the entrance there, Abuela finds Mirabel, who has run away from her family in shame. In the aftermath of the destruction of all she tried to protect, Abuela Alma sits beside her granddaughter on the edge of the river where she lost everything. “I’ve never been able to come back here,” she says. “I thought we would have a different life. I thought I would be a different woman.” Set to Sebastián Yatra’s spectacular “Dos Oruguitas” (fittingly, the one song in the movie completely in Spanish), we watch Abuela’s story unfold in a new light. Alongside Mirabel, we receive the full picture of the struggle and loss that led to the creation of their family’s miracle—the depth of Abuela’s grief, and the weight of the burden she shouldered in raising three children and leading a town all alone. We see the mountains rise between her and the river, obscuring the source of her grief and shielding the town and her family from it in the new life she builds for them.

“I was given a miracle,” Abuela says, “A second chance. And I was so afraid to lose it, that I lost sight of who our miracle was for.”

What feels irrevocably lost can be reclaimed, and what waits beyond the hard work of conflict, growth, and understanding is even better than what we cling to in fear. Shigé Clark

If you listen again to the movie’s opening number “The Family Madrigal,” you’ll recognize the melody of “Dos Oruguitas” in the bridge where Abuela says that the family must keep the miracle burning through work and dedication. (If you speak Spanish, you’ll be one step further, since you’ll hear in “Dos Oruguitas” the story of two caterpillars who have to let go and break down in order to be reborn into new hope.) Our first introduction to Abuela, which sets the stage for her character, actually turns out to be a reprise to the moment of her loss. Much like Mirabel would, we never question where Abuela got the idea that the family must earn their miracle through work and service. We take for granted that it’s true simply because Abuela says it. But the music gives us the answer before we know there’s a question to ask—that this belief comes from the fear born out of her loss, and her resolve to keep it from happening again. During that first song, we’re just like Mirabel; the key to the story is already playing out before us, but we don’t yet have the context to understand it.

We know this story well, or we should. Anyone who was raised with a strong sense of family duty, grew up in a pastor’s home, or has worked in a ministry or nonprofit has seen how easy it can be to get so swept up in the concept of the “mission” that you lose the entire point. How often do believe we have to earn through service the gifts that God freely gives us? How often do we destroy the very things we feel called to protect because we’re operating out of fear? How often is the true hero the one who does the work of facing and healing the wounds among a group, quietly patching the cracks without recognition or appreciation? How often is the one creating the cracks unable or unwilling to see it, and how rarely does that person come to see their flaws and apologize? How often is blame cast on those trying the hardest to help because they’re “stirring up conflict,” and how rarely do the ones in the right turn and offer empathy and grace to the person who created the rifts?

I’ve seen responses from people criticizing the character of Abuela. One lady called her “toxic” and said that she couldn’t enjoy the movie because of how angry she was at the character. I lament that someone could miss the mark so much. I’m sure her response comes from having an Abuela in her own life, and I wished I could grab her by the shoulders and say, “Don’t you see, this story was for you.”

She missed the point—and I was so proud, so grateful that Encanto didn’t. It would have been easy to vilify Abuela Alma, to paint her only as the controlling family leader who needed to bow to the new generation’s better way of being.

“You’re the one who doesn’t care,” Mirabel says during their confrontation, “you’re the one breaking our home. The miracle is dying because of you.”

The story could have ended at the river, with Abuela’s apology, and realizing that Mirabel was right all along.

“We are broken because of me.”

If it did, it would have still been a pretty good story. Being willing to self-reflect and admit when we’re wrong is a difficult and vital thing to learn, and it’s necessary to what comes next. The fact that it doesn’t end there, though—that there is something that comes next—makes it great.

Earlier in the movie, Mirabel comes away from a vision of how to save the family believing she must reconcile with her sister, and she does—but the observant viewer will recall that the first part of that vision doesn’t come to pass until this scene at the river, after Abuela’s apology. Those who would condemn Abuela for her failures have missed the entire point of the story. Every one of them is a part of this family; none can be ignored or discarded for the core to survive. In response to her loss, in fear of losing the “family” as a concept, Abuela Alma ignored the care of the individuals that make up that family and nearly destroyed what she was trying to protect. If Mirabel were to vilify her, she would be repeating the same mistake. But she doesn’t. She is the realization of all that her family has worked and struggled toward—what Abuela Alma couldn’t be as the one who started the journey. Mirabel listens to her abuela’s story as she has done throughout the movie for each family member, and when that story is finished, she takes her grandmother by the hands and stands with her in the place of her greatest loss and deepest pain.

“We were saved because of you. We were given a miracle because of you. We are a family because of you.”

Empathy. We’re literally dying for lack of it. And I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a story that handles it so well.

Mirabel returns with her family to their shattered home and leads them in a new start.

“Look at this home. We need a new foundation.”

Reunited, they set about rebuilding—this time not on a foundation of fear, but one of openness and empathy. The community they’ve served comes out to care for them in their brokenness. At the end, Mirabel—who has been in the background her entire life, quietly keeping the family connected through her empathy and compassion—is given the doorknob to open the new house.

“We see how bright you burn,” her family sings to her, “We see how brave you’ve been.”

Is there a human born to earth who doesn’t need to hear that?

When she adds the doorknob, after they’ve done the hard, inescapable work of rebuilding together, the door lights up, and life comes back to their home.

We call it “magic,” but we know the truth. Redemption is real. What feels irrevocably lost can be reclaimed, and what waits beyond the hard work of conflict, growth, and understanding is even better than what we cling to in fear.

Encanto is a rare and wonderful story. An incredibly nuanced depiction of family dynamics where everyone, everyone cares and is trying, yet there is conflict and heartache because the world is broken, and it’s difficult work to hear and understand each other. There is no external villain—no outsider who seeks the family’s downfall to band against. The villain is fear, and miscommunication, and the expectations we place on ourselves and each other in pursuit of the ends we think will protect us. There is far, far more to celebrate about Encanto that I simply can’t get into here. It’s not a perfect movie, but I can’t believe it manages to pack in all that it does in such a balanced way. At its heart, though, is the invisible impact of generational trauma and a hero who saves her family through empathetic leadership that extends even to those members who’ve hurt her most. I can’t think of a more hopeful story to tell about family than that.


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