Encanto‘s Intergenerational Trauma Explored Through Disney Hallmarks

Like its protagonist, Encanto is gifted in less obvious ways than its Disney peers. Under the surface, the film’s story is tapping into the heartbeat of a generation at odds with its ancestors’ way of doing things. Its standardized aesthetics and house of mouse be-true-to-yourself narrative hypnotize youth to bring a strong message of intergenerational trauma to the battle-worn families that need to hear it most.

The premise of Encanto is simple enough to explain when you don’t have to sing it. The expansive Madrigal family, blessed with a sentient house and supernatural powers, is threatened when their magic seems to be fading. The sole non-magical relative Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) takes it upon herself to save the household from falling apart, unearthing family drama from a previous generation and the traumatic burden faced by her sisters, Isabela and Luisa, in the process. Mirabel must confront the house’s matriarch and work to repair both the values and enchantment of her family.

The Madrigal matriarch, Abuela, forces the gifts of each family member to conform into the Madrigal’s mission of making their town a better place to live. The Herculean strength of Mirabel’s sister Luisa is put to use by burdening her with the majority of the daily tasks. But as Mirabel digs into the mystery of Madrigal magic, she discovers the incredible pressure Luisa is under to be constantly reliable for Abuela and the family. Mirabel’s attempts to communicate these feelings fall at the feet of an elder who wants everything to be perfect. At the same time, Abuela is only expressing her own need to create a household worthy of the great sacrifice that created it. How similar this is to the boomer generation, founding their own beliefs on the backs of the many sacrifices that have been made for these traditions and values.

Meanwhile, Mirabel stands in for a generation that feels alienated from a past filled with choices they weren’t around for. She wants to preserve the magic her Abuela found so long ago, but more importantly, she fights to help each member of her family embrace their personal truths in spite of the expectations of the family structure. The struggle she and her siblings go through to help Abuela understand them beyond their talents is relatable to the many people who suffer from how traditional values and systems have hampered their self-actualization.

Of course, Disney’s musicals are often primarily judged on the power of their soundtracks. With Lin-Manuel Miranda writing lyrics, expositional songs such as “The Family Madrigal” and “All of You” are disappointing in their obviousness. However, when his second-act numbers like “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” kick in, the themes carry the already catchy tunes into stronger emotional territory, creating ballads of personal truth for a younger demographic. Each song emphasizes a different pressurized family member’s personal struggle, giving a voice to young people of today. Many of these have become viral sensations through the fandom of descendants that can sing their gripes against their own family’s narrative.

This success is due in part to the bright toy-like look of Encanto. The animation is pretty cookie-cutter in terms of character models and brings nothing new to the table set by Moana and Frozen. However, the characterization given to the Madrigal family’s house in Pixar-like fashion is impressively expressive without modeling discernable human anatomy. The backdrops during the better musical numbers give a colorful background to the character’s simplistic move-based choreography that feels just made for repetition by the youth of TikTok. The potential of the colorful Columbian landscape is never fully mined, but the story parks itself firmly in the Madrigal’s house well enough to ignore that issue. The visuals of Encanto remain beautiful but bland, perfect for slipping into pop culture like a puzzle piece.

Truly the standard-issue character models are just a decent vehicle for the charming vocal performances of an energetic cast. Stephanie Beatriz of Brooklyn Nine-Nine carries the movie’s rocky dialogue with her chipper delivery and babysitter-like demeanor in a star-making voice performance. Ice Age alumnus John Leguizamo fully realizes the awkwardly heartwarming Bruno through a tone that comes across innocent, reminding us that sometimes the demons of family history are simply misunderstood for their differences. The rest of the cast follows the energy of these two performances, creating a family environment full of both literal and metaphorical individual voices and tones.

On a technical level, the film is just a fine example of typical Disney quality, without much innovation. What truly gives Encanto its magic is how it reflects a moment in culture. As the generational gap in our world widens due to the rapid progress of technology and social politics, children are having a harder time understanding the traditionalism of their older relatives. Globally-conscious sons and daughters of a world united through technology are being forced to reckon with the structures they’re born into. The Madrigal’s magical mystery explores the pressure to embrace an ideology of staying true to oneself while enforcing traditional family values. Yet its nuanced take is delivered with the unremarkable aesthetics of an animated family film in order to find that sweet spot of parents and children who will both take lessons from it.

In a clash with Abuela, Mirabel expresses a sentiment that many people struggling with oppressed identities feel. “I will never be good enough for you, will I? No matter how hard I try, no matter how hard any of us try… You’re the one that doesn’t care. You’re the one breaking our home!” How often today have we found generational dividing cracks over personal identity! Battle lines have been drawn between families for far less than a dying magical house. From coming out stories to protests against systems that oppress rather than serve, the crisis of “Encanto” is a familiar tale to a modern audience. More than just the typical John Hughes adolescent scream, the Madrigal’s family is about finding out who you are and trying to explore it in the shadow of programmed repression.

Other Disney movies in recent years have explored similar themes to great success. Frozen took over the world with “Let It Go,” a song about embracing who you are no matter what others may think of you. The protagonist of Moana violated her own family’s wishes by following her heart until she eventually leads her whole tribe to a new age of exploration. These stories of individual expression vs. established traditions are easy to find. However, it is Encanto’s fierce, colorful aesthetic that has dominated the conversation and brought these ideas to the forefront of their children’s narrative rather than using them as a garnish.

The power of this narrative is already being exemplified in how the youth internet culture has adopted the film as an instant classic. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” has topped Spotify charts and trending hashtags, while posts and videos on TikTok and other platforms focus on how the movie makes young people feel seen. Minor details like the bisexual rainbow on Mirabel’s blouse have fans literally singing the movie’s praises. The Madrigal family has become a voice for a generation that values a personal identity and feels strangled by structure.

While Encanto may just be a technically efficient Disney movie created by a committee of three directors and six story credits, the film has stumbled on something brewing deep in the heart of today. Teens and young adults can relate to its message, but it is only the oldest and youngest who can learn from it. Perhaps this is just the next step in creating a better bridge between the self-love evangelizers and those that feel a loyalty to the traditional structures.

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