Encanto and the Miracle of Empathy

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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,