There’s no shortage of aspects one can appreciate or admire about Disney’s resplendent Encanto. It’s an accessible, heartwarming story about family, acceptance and the damaging pressure of anxiety and unrealistic expectations. It’s packed to the gills with musical earworms courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, including a song in “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” that is arguably an even bigger Disney hit than Frozen’s “Let It Go.” And finally, it’s visually dazzling in a way that only the best Disney works ever aspire to be, with gorgeous animation that ranks near the top of anything the studio has ever produced in its long and storied history.
At the same time, however, there’s a twist of unaddressed darkness at the heart of Encanto’s story, an unhealthy dynamic between the film’s virtuous Madrigal family and the small township or titular encanto utterly dependent upon the magic of their miracle. There was room in this script for an additional lesson, an exploration of the power dynamic that raises the Madrigal family high above the peasants below them, where both sides in said dynamic could have learned to interact with one another in a more respectful and holistic way. It’s a theme I was expecting to see explored in more depth as I watched Encanto, only to see the potential power of that lesson sidestepped as the story rushed along to a conclusion focused almost entirely on personal growth within the family. As it stands, the dynamic between the Madrigal family and the town is a missed opportunity to explore additional themes of power vs. dependency.
The interesting thing here is that the story of Encanto doesn’t establish this power dynamic as being potentially problematic in only a single way—rather, both sides (the townspeople and the Madrigals) have issues with the way they interact with one another. Most of these issues are never clearly acknowledged by any of the characters, which seems to imply the audience isn’t meant to conclude there’s any inherent problem with the way life in the encanto unfolds. If we are meant to understand some criticism in the script of the power dynamic between the family and the townspeople, then that criticism may be too subtle for the vast majority of viewers, who are likely to miss it entirely.
From the perspective of the villagers, the Madrigal family exists somewhere between the status of “town founders” and local deities, something we can see in the awe and gawking of the village children during the opening musical number. They’re a phenomenally powerful familial unit that is fully capable of controlling literally everything that happens within the encanto, effectively leaving the villagers at their mercy. We thank our lucky stars that the family is largely benevolent, because if they weren’t this would be a horror story about being trapped in a town run by all-powerful despots, like The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” with the little boy replaced by an entire family.
This is what members of the Madrigal family see when they step out among the serfs.
Over 50 years since its founding, the villagers have apparently responded to this status quo—being overseen by literal demigods—by becoming notably infantilized and pacified. After all, why engage in hard labor when there’s a lady with super strength who you can call upon to perform any task for you? Over time, this has led to the townspeople calling upon the Madrigals for everything they need. They rely on Pepa to control the weather in their village, and Isabela to make plants bloom. They rely on the cooking of Julieta to supply the entirety of their medicine and wellness. And they rely on the might and gregarious nature of Luisa to perform nearly every daily task imaginable, to the point that her whole existence revolves around serving them, fixing even the problems that they could easily fix themselves. When a pen full of donkeys gets out of their enclosure, does the farmer who owns the donkeys simply herd them back in, as a farmer would in literally any other part of the world? No, he calls upon Luisa to do it for him. This ultimately wears down and hurts the self-sacrificing Luisa, who is betrayed by her own gregariousness and a feeling of responsibility that the townspeople take advantage of endlessly, leeching her resolve.
Luisa’s feeling that she constantly needs to be at the beck and call of the village ultimately hurts BOTH her and them.
The audience, meanwhile, is perhaps supposed to feel that the townspeople have “paid the family back” by assisting in the rebuilding of the Madrigal household at the end of Encanto, but this only ultimately reinforces the status quo—they want to get things back to how they were at the beginning of the story, so they can go back to their passivity. The villagers aren’t implied to have learned any lesson about self-reliance, or gained some greater sense of agency. They don’t mind the disparity in the power dynamic between themselves and the Madrigals, and that’s problematic in its own way—it implies that some people should wield great power over others, not because they were chosen by the group but because they’ve passed down their power and prestige via familial ties. In this way, the story of Encanto almost embraces a sense of feudalism.
And then you have the Madrigals themselves. Members of the family like Luisa are obviously the most sympathetic, having decided that their burden of power is to use that power every day to serve the town, even when they may not be doing those villagers a favor in the long run as they strip them of their agency. Others like Matriarch Abuela, on the other hand, represent the more genuinely problematic side of this power dynamic, having grown a bit too fond of the status that fate provided for them all those years ago. Her husband’s choice to sacrifice himself 50 years earlier has given her a sense of ownership of the casita that she never personally lifted a finger to build, and she’s grown haughty when it comes to her expectations not just for her family members, but of the power she expects the Madrigal family to continue casually wielding over the community. She delights in her family’s role as the town’s heroes and saviors, which has ultimately given her an unpleasantly arrogant disposition, as she sees the miracle and its magic as some fated thing that only her family is worthy of wielding. Everyone who lives in the town, meanwhile, ultimately exists and lives there by her permission, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Abuela went from a refugee without any power, to a woman determined to hold on to her power over others at all cost. And she never realizes it.
The plot of Encanto could have criticized and called attention to this unbalanced power dynamic between Abuela and the village by making it clear that the weakening of the candle and the miracle were tied to the lack of respect that Abuela shows toward the villagers, in addition to the burdens and expectations she places upon her family. Instead of only reckoning with the negative impact that her imperiousness has had on her flesh and blood relatives, Abuela could likewise have realized that her entitlement as the “bearer of the miracle” had made her an icon of undue power in the encanto. In the story as currently constructed, Abuela remains ignorant of the negative effects she’s had on the community, even as her family’s gifts and power are returned to them. She learns a lesson about family, but not the broader lesson about altruism and entitlement that easily could have been worked into the same story.
Ultimately, it calls into question the decision of the screenwriters to return all of the family’s gifts, powers and the miracle itself at the end of the film, in the name of a conventional, Disney-approved happy ending. Imagine for a moment, a conclusion where the Madrigals don’t receive their powers/gifts back after the Casita is rebuilt. Instead, the family members learn to participate in town life in a more gratifying, naturalistic way, learning what it’s like to contribute to a society where success isn’t free and easy to achieve—not something one is simply born into. In the process, they experience spiritual growth as they build calluses and empathy, coming to truly understand what life is like for those born without superpowers. The townspeople, meanwhile, become closer to the family and are able to finally address them as equals rather than local celebrities who solve all their problems for them, taking their lives into their own hands along the way. In this way, Encanto could have been a story about growing by giving up power; instead it’s ultimately about preserving one’s power.
I dream of an Encanto that ends with a rebuilt casita, no longer magically empowered and filled with hijinks, but still warm and comfortable, filled with both family members and villagers who have bonded and realized that they’re stronger when relying on all of their natural gifts and character, rather than a supernatural endowment conferred on the select few. The film almost evokes these themes, but it falls short of embracing them in the way it could have. It remains a missed opportunity in what is otherwise one of Disney’s most stirring films in recent memory.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.