“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The Madrigal family might want to have a word with ol’ Leo.
The Madrigals, who live in a secret valley in Colombia, are happy. Happy, they say. And they’re magical, too, which makes them pretty unique.
For decades, this family has lived in a magical house and has cranked out magical kids. Abuela Alma says it’s all because of a very special candle—one that was mysteriously granted to the Madrigals 50 years ago, one that has never gone out since. Since that candle first flamed, each of Abuela’s children and grandchildren have been supernaturally blessed: Julieta can heal almost any wound with a bit of her home cooking; Pepa’s mood is given away by the clouds and/or sunshine that forever float above her head. Dolores can hear a vole whisper a few zip codes over. Why, even the family’s requisite black sheep—Bruno—had his own black gift: the ability to see into the future.
Yes, each and every member of the Madrigal family is spe—
What’s that? Mirabel? Oh, yes. Each and every member of the Madrigal family is special, except for Mirabel. Which, um, makes her special in her own un-special way, right?
It’s not her fault. During the age-old family ceremony, where each new Madrigal touches the doorknob of a special gifting door, no gift came to Mirabel. And while the townsfolk were disappointed and Abuela was slightly scandalized, Mirabel’s shame and pain of being the only non-gifted Madrigal has slowly ebbed to just a dull, throbbing embarrassment. “Gift or no gift, I’m just as special as anyone in my family,” the now teenage Mirabel tells herself. And she might even believe it sometimes.
But during the family’s next gifting ceremony, Mirabel notices something she’s never seen before. Shortly after young Antonio Madrigal receives his gift from the glowing door, cracks shoot through the walls. The house seems to heave. Mirabel turns her head up to the magic candle—perched as it always is in her Abuela’s window—and she sees it flicker.
Naturally, the cracks quickly vanish. Naturally, no one believes that they were ever there in the first place—or so it would seem. And yet, as Mirabel begins to investigate, she finds that the family itself might be showing a few cracks.
Perhaps Tolstoy was right after all. Perhaps the Madrigal family is not as happy as it seems.
Let’s begin with the gifts—not the gifts themselves, but what they’re used for.
As both the Bible and Spider-Man say, gifts come with responsibility: If you’ve been given much, you should use those gifts wisely, and for the benefit of others. So it is with Abuela’s brood, who use their abilities to bless the town around them. And the Madrigals—especially matriarch Abuela Alma—feel responsible to keep those blessings flowing.
Yes, Mirabel does feel a little put out sometimes that she’s the only Madrigal without a gift. But she deals with it with grace. And when Antonio, her young cousin, is terrified of failing his own gifting ceremony, he turns to Mirabel for support—even making her walk with him, hand in hand, to the magic door. It must be painful for Mirabel, given that her own walk ended in such disappointment. But she does it all the same.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” she tells Antonio shortly before he undergoes his ceremony. “Because I have an amazing family.” Indeed, all the Madrigals have a deep regard for the fam—even a character or two you’d never expect.
But if there’s a core message in this movie it’s this: Families are wonderful. But they’re also fallible and imperfect. Sometimes their sheer wonderfulness, in fact, can be a burden—just like our own individual gifts can be. It’s an important lesson, and one we’ll unpack more in our conclusion.
Encanto suggests (albeit in passing) that the Madrigals are, at the very least, nominally Christian. The town’s Catholic priest becomes a familiar (if not overly important) character. And when Luisa helps put the edifice on a literally firmer foundation, the priest crosses himself. Abuela and her beau are also shown getting married in church, in front of a prominent cross.
But certainly Encanto’s biggest spiritual element is its magic.
Abuela calls the family’s magical candle (and all the gifts it has bestowed) a “miracle.” (A whole song reinforces that whole “miracle” angle, too.) And while it’s never stated, she and other family members seem to believe that their gifts are divine blessings, and to be used to bless others.
The magic manifests itself in very Disney-like ways, if you will: The house itself is a character, with its roof tiles banging out messages and its stairs turning into slides (to keep curious kids away from the second floor). And most of the magical abilities that members of the family have also seem relatively innocuous. Pepe’s moods are telegraphed by the clouds hovering over her head. Super-strong Luisa piles donkeys on her back and kicks a building back into place. And so on.
But there is one exception: One family member has the ability to see into the future (something forbidden by the Bible, actually), and his process feels far more like a magic spell. That character lights candles and pours what looks to be sand into a circle that he and Mirabel sit in. The diviner’s eyes go a little crazy as he peers into the misty future. But as is the case with many fortune tellers, his prophecies can be pretty ambiguous or predictable. (The priest, for instance, recalls how the diviner prophesied that he’d lose his hair. Decades later, the priest lifts a toupee off his scalp and laments how right he was.)
In flashback, we see the romance of Abuela and her beau—her eventual husband and father of their triplets. They kiss in church as they get married during a wedding ceremony.
Mirabel’s sister, the impossibly lovely and graceful Isabela, is dating the town hunk, Mariano; the two almost get engaged. But another Madrigal family member also has eyes for Mariano.
Camilo can change his appearance at will—and he masquerades as both male and female members of the Madrigal family.
The movie’s most violent moment is just suggested: In flashback, soldiers thunder toward innocent civilians, one unsheathing his sword as he prepares to strike. We learn, from the horrified expression of a survivor, that the strike hit home.
Marrying into the Madrigal family apparently involves a bit of danger, as Mariano discovers. Occasionally, as the Madrigal magic goes wrong, various elements pop out and bop the guy in the nose. (We see his schnoz bandaged at one point.)
Augustin, Mirabel’s non-magical pops, is allergic to bee stings. We see his nose and ear seriously (if comically) swollen from the venom. But wife Julieta’s magical cooking solves the problem right away. Julieta also serves a bit of food to a guy with an obviously broken arm.
Characters experience quite a bit of peril, too—leaping over a large gorge and dealing with the Madrigal’s crumbling house. All the donkeys that Luisa carts get bonked about a good bit, too.
We hear a “jeez,” but that’s about the closest we get to profanity here.
After a Madrigal ceremony (attended by most of the townsfolk) seems to experience a hiccup, Abuela assures her guests, “The magic is strong! And so are the drinks!”
Every family has its own tensions, and members of the Madrigal family fight at times. Sometimes those fights are between siblings (venting longtime grievances). Other rifts arise between generations, with a youngster arguably treating an elder with disrespect.
Encanto is a great movie, almost any way you slice it. It’s colorful, funny and filled with some pretty fantastic songs. But that’s not what makes it great: Plenty an animated spectacle can charm in the moment. But Encanto sticks with you. Why? Loads of reasons, really, but let me offer one.
The Madrigal family is, with all due respect to Tolstoy, unlike any you’ve ever seen. And yet the dynamics in play can feel very familiar—even universal.
Our own brothers and sisters may not cause flowers to sprout at a touch (like Isabela); but we can still feel the hopeless pressure of trying to live up to a gifted sibling’s example. We may not be able to hoist pianos on our shoulders (like Luisa), but sometimes we can feel the weight of responsibility there—trying like crazy to carry what we’ve been given and feeling with every step that we just might fail. We know folks like Aunt Pepe, whose every mood is reflected in her being. We know folks like Camilo, who seem to morph into someone else for any social situation.
The Madrigal family is, magic or no, a lot like mine. And probably yours, too.
And therein lies the movie’s power: This isn’t so much the story of a magical family as it’s about the “magic” found in family itself—how wonderful, and how difficult, our closest kin can be.
It’s about community, too. The movie reminds us, as the Bible does, that we’re all designed to be part of a bigger picture. Yes, we’re called to use our gifts to help others, but there’s no sin or weakness in asking for a little help when we need it, too. It reminds us that even our talents can trap us, not free us—that we can become the sum of what we do. But that’s not how God looks at us, and not how we should look at ourselves.
Our gifts are just a small part of who we are. And who we are is our real gift.
When I watched Encanto, I was reminded a little of Jesus’ parable of the house built upon the rock. In many ways, the Madrigal house was built upon a rock—its foundations laid in the midst of tragedy, its walls built of magic and duty and care and, yes, love. But we learn that, while all those ingredients are strong indeed, a bit of cement can hold it even better: honesty. Transparency. Grace.
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Christ is not mentioned in Encanto, and some of the magic we see here would never earn acclaim from Paul. But we do see how weakness can become our strengths. However great we are, it’s grace that counts most. Encanto knows this, and it reminds us in one of the most entertaining ways possible.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.