Film

Disney’s Oscar-winning animation Encanto expertly interrogates the pressure on immigrants to serve communities. By Ruby Hamad.

Encanto

Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, in Encanto.
Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, in Encanto.
Credit: Courtesy of Disney

This review contains spoilers.

“It’s all about giving back to the community where you live,” Logan resident Usman Chaudhry told reporters when his Ahmadiyya Muslim community rallied to assist victims of the recent devastating floods. Also dubbed “true community heroes” by journalists were “recently settled Pacific Islander seasonal workers” in Lismore who came out “in droves to assist the country they now call home. From lifting community spirits by singing hymns mid-clean-ups, to remaining on-call for any residents who are in need of an extra pair of hands (or 45).”

Stories of community members banding together in the wake of disaster are not uncommon. Sweet as they are, consuming them can come with an aftertaste when ethnicity and immigrant status become the story. As Algerian–French soccer star Karim Benzema famously quipped, “When I score, I am French, when I don’t score or there is a problem, I am Arab.” In other words, you can only be one of us when you serve us.

This pressure to serve is expertly interrogated in, of all places, Disney’s animated musical Encanto, which this week won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. The Madrigal clan lives in an isolated village somewhere in the mountains of Colombia, some time around the civil wars of the early 20th century. Although headed by steely Abuela Alma, the star of the extended family is 15-year-old Mirabel. Along with Mirabel, we learn early on that Abuela lost her husband 50 years earlier as they fled their town with only the clothes on their backs and infant triplets in her arms, chased by invading conquistadors. She was, however, granted a miracle in his place: an enchanted village to shield her community from the violence of the outside world and, in homage to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, a magical, sentient house that bestows upon each child a unique, supernatural gift.

Well, all except Mirabel, who didn’t get one. Her oldest sister, Isabela, is senorita perfecta, middle child Luisa is as “tough as the crust of the Earth is” and their mother, Julieta, cures all ailments with her cooking. Lest we think the family might use these powers to benefit themselves, in the opening number, “The Family Madrigal”, Abuela informs us they swear “to always / Help those around us / And earn the miracle / That somehow found us”. The unacknowledged survivor’s guilt weighs heavily. Fortunately, what Mirabel lacks in magic she makes up for in intuition and empathy. She recognises the family is breaking down, symbolised through literal cracks in the walls, and, terrified that the magic is dying, sets off to find her estranged Uncle Bruno, who could see the future and mysteriously fled the night Mirabel didn’t get her gift.

Encanto follows recent Disney offerings that mark a shift in how Disney portrays non-Western cultures. In 2017, Pixar’s Coco – centred on Mexico’s annual Dia de los Muertos festival – broke box-office records in Mexico, indicating they were on the right track. Encanto is even more impressive. The close involvement of Colombian creatives is apparent in every frame, from the houses and village streets to the 12-string Latin guitar populating Lin-Manuel Miranda’s chart-topping, hip-hop infused soundtrack, to the clothes, the texture of the characters’ hair and their facial expressions. In one scene, Mirabel points at an object with her mouth, an attention to detail possible only by working with people embedded in the culture.

The result is not just a musical that happens to take place in Colombia, cherrypicking elements of its cultural mythology in the process, but one in which Colombian culture takes centre stage. When the central song “Dos Oruguitas” (“Two Little Caterpillars”) plays in Spanish over scenes of Abuela and her village fleeing across a river in the darkness, there is no mistaking who and what we are watching. It is impossible not to connect these images to Latin American refugees still forced to flee today – only to be demonised at their destination.

The film boldly tackles generational trauma in immigrant families caused by extreme suffering and loss, which then manifests in unrealistic expectations: those Madrigal family gifts have become more of a curse than a blessing. Luisa is strong enough to be the town’s beast of burden but she’s approaching breaking point. Tía Pepa “controls the weather”, but because it storms when she is upset, she struggles to suppress all negative emotions, and Isabela is marrying the perfect man – for her grandmother.

Abuela blames the giftless Mirabel for the cracks but, terrified of losing the magic that sustains her entire village, the matriarch prioritises selfless service at the expense of emotional wellbeing; it is her own toxic perfectionism that is the problem. “The world keeps turning / But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning,” she sings. “And each new generation must keep the miracle burning.” No pressure.

“Our parents and grandparents haven’t dealt with the trauma of losing everything,” my friend Gigi, a second-generation Latina immigrant, said to me about the impact the film has had on her family. “They still live with the fear of loss and that’s why sometimes they hurt us by teaching us to also be afraid … So many of us are stuck in this time loop of poverty and dispossession, passing down from generation to generation. So, with Encanto, it was like – we have to stop this.”

Though specifically and gloriously Colombian, Encanto resonates with anyone whose family has had to start again. The grief and bewilderment, the pressure to justify our parents’ sacrifices, the expectations of the new society and the terror of losing it all again if we prove ourselves unworthy, can become an unbearable burden. Without losing its charm or family-friendly rating, the musical embarks on an unflinching exploration of mental health, specifically how traits adopted in order to survive a crisis become toxic if not released once the danger has passed. Abuela’s magic was forged from the power of her immense grief. Somehow, after losing her only love and her home, she had to find the strength to continue for the sake of her children and to be a pillar of her community that came to rely on her family’s sacrifices.

But stoicism, sacrifice and endless service can’t be the foundation of an existence. “Encanto forced us to confront how what our parents and grandparents have gone through has shaped our lives,” says Gigi. For all its magic, what some joke is the most miraculous thing of all is that Abuela admitted her mistakes. “When I asked my mum about [the film] she just smiled and said she liked it. It’s like it’s too painful for a lot of them to even go there, because it would mean having to acknowledge they’ve hurt us. We know our own Abuelas aren’t going to say they’re sorry, we have to do the work. And I think at least some of us want to.”

Who could ever have guessed that Disney would be an impetus for multigenerational ethnic healing? 

Encanto is now streaming on Disney Plus.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Animated healing".

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Ruby Hamad is a writer and cultural critic.

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