‘Encanto’: Disney’s portrayal of generational trauma and toxic families

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Disney’s Encanto has become a social media hit not only because of its great animation, the vibrant scenery, the costumes, and the catchy songs but also because of how relatable the family story is.

Now, besides the marvelous and fantastical bits of the story, what the movie is really about is how generational trauma is dealt with and how it’s transmitted within the family creating a toxic environment; thus why many of us felt so represented in the movie. Let’s get through it.

The Trauma

Set in pre-modern rural Colombia, the tragedy of the Madrigal family starts when Abuela Alma and Abuelo Pedro are forced to flee their home. While escaping they’re encountered by armed men, and in an attempt to save Alma and his newborn triplets, Pedro sacrifices himself. He’s killed in front of them, but a sudden miracle appears. A magic candle that raises walls and builds an astounding magical house. As her children grow, they’re granted gifts to serve this new isolated community, and it thus became the Madrigal’s purpose to use their powers for the well-being of their people.

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The movie never explains why the family had to flee or what exactly the armed conflict was, but it’s not that necessary since it’s a story that resonates throughout basically any Latin American country. Most Latino families, especially those who have migrated, will have a specific violent event that forced the family to move or that wounded the family in unimaginable ways.

What’s interesting is how this trauma is portrayed in the movie. We’re told of this story first at the very beginning of the film when Mirabel is about to have her door ceremony and Abuela narrates the story of the family to her. At this first telling, in the flashback, we see a more serene Abuela as if she had learned to tell the story while concealing the real pain it provoked in her. In the second telling, when the casita has entirely fallen apart, and Abuela apologizes and opens up to Mirabel, the visuals change, and we get to see how Alma really experienced the tragedy of witnessing her beloved husband being murdered. Abuela can be seen as the villain of the story but the real villain is generational trauma.

Let’s now see how this generational trauma forces the characters to take on a toxic role within the family.

Abuela Alma – The abuser

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As we see throughout the film, as head of the family, Alma poses herself as the pillar; always pushing everyone to do what they’re supposed to do and shunning those who dare to do something different. This comes out of fear of losing anyone else, but in her attempt to keep the family together and functional, she emotionally abuses its members. We se that clearer with the characters of Bruno, who was literally vanished and taken out of the family narrative, and Mirabel, whose love is constantly rejected by her Abuela.

More importantly, it seems that Alma places the worth every family member regarding their gift or how useful they are to the family and the community. For that reason, both Mirabel and Bruno have been pushed away. They don’t represent, in her mind, any good worthy of her appreciation.

Julieta – The healer

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Julieta’s role is that of the healer and the fixer, and not precisely because her gift is actually healing. She assumes that role as the eldest of the triplets and the one in charge of helping others heal their emotional problems. We se her constantly trying to solve every little problem of the family through love and warmth, but we also see her struggle to keep everything up together while she’s dealing with her own issues. A great example is when Julieta and her ungifted husband, try to comfort Mirabel when Abuela shuns her; since she’s also a pleaser she places herself as a neutral player, but these attitudes end up making her three daughters very insecure people unable to speak up their desires and wishes.

Pepa – The one being gaslit

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Pepa is one of the saddest characters of the entire film. We know her gift is being able to control the weather, but mainly this is linked to her emotions. We see that whenever she’s upset, a cloud immediately appears over her head making it rain. Many members of the family, mainly Abuela, are constantly telling her to shut down her feelings invalidating them, her problems, and her opinions.

Bruno and Mirabel – The scapegoats

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The audience’s favorite, Bruno, is basically the scapegoat of the family. His gift is clairvoyance, and since some of the things he envisioned were often negative, his family saw them as bad omens instead of just a lecture of what the future holds. He’s probably the most reasonable of them all, the one who dares to say there’s something wrong with the dynamics, and for that reason, he’s pushed back. Abuela doesn’t want to hear that her methods and leadership style are flawed and prefers to blame him.

This happens in many toxic families where it’s best to pretend everything is fine and perfect instead of addressing the problems. As we see in the film, this same thing happens to Mirabel when she says the magic is vanishing and the casita falling apart. Abuela immediately shuns her in front of everyone and even at some point blames her for the situation. She’s the one without a gift, and for that reason, she must be the one to blame for what’s happening, even though she’s constantly trying to fix everything.

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Both Bruno and Mirabel have this sort o Stockholm syndrome attitude in which even when they’ve been shunned and pushed away, they still love their abusers and try to make everything to please them. For Bruno, that was simply disappearing to please Abuela; though he just hides to stay near everybody. He’s been even fixing the cracks on the house, so no one has to worry about that. Mirable, on her side, tries too hard to make herself useful for the family even when they’re constantly diminishing her for not having any power. In the end, unlike Bruno, Mirabel decides to confront the problem in an attempt to do something to help the family.

Isabela – The face of the family

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Isabela is the personification of perfection, at least in the eyes of Abuela, the family, and the rest of the community. She’s the golden child, the one who’s always impeccable to the eyes of the others. Bruno even predicted she would have “the life of her dreams,” unlike the rest of the family. But what’s interesting about this vision is that everyone got negative predictions showing that Isabela’s isn’t as great as it seems at first. That perfection she embodies makes it the character that’s most pressured by the family to remain that way. She gets some privileges for that, sure; at the end of the day, she’s the favorite, but that urge to reach that perfection even pushes her to be willing to marry someone she doesn’t want just to please everyone else. Also, it’s the status of the perfect child that makes her part of the abusive pattern of the family, and this is seen in her relationship with Mirabel. If Abuela pushes her away, Isabella will do it as well, because she doesn’t want to risk the spot of the favorite one. All in all, Isabela is the type of character in the family that’s willing to give her entire life and dreams away for the benefit of the family, or what the family thinks is best.

Luisa – The protector

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Luisa is the character many of us connect with the most, especially those of us who are the eldest child. She has super strength, and for that reason, everyone relies on her for all the heavy physical duties. She does everything, from moving buildings to lifting tons of donkeys, all this without hesitating nor questioning. She’s literally carrying all the burden of the family and the community, and that includes being constantly crushed by the responsibility. Unlike her mother, Julieta, who took the role of the healer herself due to her gift, when it comes to Luisa, it’s the family itself the one that put all that weight and responsibility on her. Perhaps, that’s why she’s the first one to crack whenever she sees the miracle is fading, because, in a way, she’s liberating herself from carrying all that burden. Still, as we see, not being able to carry on with her duty makes her feel guilt and anxiety.

Dolores – The therapist

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Dolores’ gift is super hearing, and although we don’t get to see a lot of her powers being of aid to the community, nor the family (other than just spying over some conversations for information), we get to see she’s automatically given the role of the listener and thus, the one who carries the emotional burden of the family. She knows about everything, and that’s why the moment Mirabel sees the magic is fading, she’s the first she resorts to. Being the one who knows everything that happens in the family causes great stress on her. What’s also sad about Dolores is that she listens to everything, but no one really cares to listen to her own problems and pain.

Camilo – The jester

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Camilo’s role in the film is that of comic relief, but it goes deeper than that. He’s somehow the jester or the mascot of the family; the one who’s always lightening the mood. If you think about it, his gift isn’t that useful in terms of helping the community in that fantasized narrative Abuela created. He’s a shape-shifter, but what use can the community give to that power? Instead, he’s constantly using his power to play pranks, narrate stories, or even just to get some extra food. In a way his gift is a metaphor for the role he has in the family, he’s the one that becomes whatever the family needs him to be.

Antonio – The mediator

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Antonio is the youngest of the Madrigal. Although we don’t get to see much about him, other than him receiving his gift, we get to see that he’s the one between Mirabel and the rest of the family; he’s the one that validates her and is always trying to make her feel part of the family.

Photos from IG: @encantomovie