Christ and Culture: The Miraculous Message in Encanto

Like most people, I have come to love the latest (I think that’s right?) Disney movie to come out: Encanto. It’s cute, bright, musical, and full of relatable characters. I mean, who can’t relate to Louisa’s song, right? Or what mom wouldn’t wish for Julietta’s gift? But each time I watched the film, I felt that something was…missing. And for the longest time, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. My brother-in-law noted that while there are a lot of fun musical numbers, the story lacked any real depth. And I know what you are thinking. How can such rich characters and enchanting songs result in a lack of depth in the story? And yet, I found the conclusion to be lackluster at best. Actually, it’s worse than that. In the end, the writers missed the message within their own plot. Like many other movies I have discussed, Encanto is written in what is becoming a post-Christian society. They hold onto the appearance of Christian things, but they’ve lost Christianity’s essence because they have rejected Christ. And thus, we find ourselves in Christian south America without Christ.

Before we can get to the ignored yet central Christian themes of this story, we have to talk about another related fault in this film. It is a fault found in many, maybe even most, modern films, and that is the multitude of wimpy males and strong female characters. This is not to say you can’t have unmasculine men (the first example that comes to mind from an older movie is Gaston), or that you can’t have strong or central female characters (Rapunzel is a favorite of mine from recent years). But when every gal gets the spotlight, and every guy looks like he never figured out how to grow up, it’s tough to know what a real man looks like, let alone why his presence might be important. And I think the men had some shining moments in this movie. Felix is romantic, and Agustin stands up for his daughter, but in general, the guys are goofy sidekicks to their awesome wives and daughters. Even Bruno gets the short stick in the end. But that is not my main point. Plenty of other people have talked about the falling status of men in the culture. Instead, I want to talk about one guy who gets very little screen time yet is central to the plot: Abuelo Pedro.

In short, Pedro is a Christ-like character and the true hero of the entire story. This point, sadly, gets overshadowed by the main chunk of the movie and by one of the ending scenes. Let me explain. At the beginning of the movie, Abuela tells the story of how their house and candle came to be, their encanto. She and her husband left their war-torn home, leading a group of others away when Abuelo was “lost.” Suddenly, the candle lights up, and a house appears to shelter them. And from this candle, each subsequent generation receives that continual gift from the candle in a special ceremony. The rest of the story is history. Today, we see a lovely, perfect, resilient family that spends their time helping others.

And yet, there is more to their story than that. Because as we get through the film, all is not what it seems. Cracks are forming in this house, and the family that seems so perfect and strong on the outside is broken on the inside. Why? They are helping people with their gifts. They have a wonderful life in their enchanted home, surrounded by a loving family. Those who married into the family also get the benefits of being a part of this magical, protected family. But something is broken at the heart of this family, and I think it comes down to Abuela’s major flaw. Did you catch it in the opening number?

We swear to always help those around us

And earn the miracle that somehow found us

But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning.

Family Madrigal

Those lines felt off every time I heard them, but I couldn’t place why. After watching the film for the zillionth time, I know why. That miracle she is talking about, the encanto of miraculous love, is grace.

See, there was more to that story of her losing Abuelo than she originally told. But we don’t even get to hear it until the very end. And it sort of makes sense, especially if you were to make the point that I am about to make. Also, it makes sense that she wouldn’t tell a six(?)-year-old that her husband had been murdered saving his family. I get that. It wouldn’t have made for a very PG-13 movie, and probably would have traumatized any child about to get their gift! I can’t blame Abuela for not wanting to talk about the full story when they were children (side note: I think the writers and animators did a FANTASTIC job depicting grief. Oh, that scene hits me every time.) But in doing so, her children and grandchildren, and perhaps most of all herself, forgot what they had been given: salvation.

The best scenes in the entire movie are of Abuela and Abuelo’s beautiful love story. This little song was more touching than the opening of UP. But their little paradise was not to last. Columbia was and is a war-torn country, and not even their little village was safe from the conflicts. But Pedro loved his wife and family. When he saw the danger, he knew he needed to take his family away to protect them. He led a group of people away from the flood of war that would have destroyed them all. After they cross the river, he sees a group of men coming to kill them all. Pedro knows that by running he won’t be able to save his family. He must stop them. So, he does the hardest and best thing he could do: Pedro sacrifices himself so that his family might live. He gives them a second chance, a new life. He saves them.

This scene is glossed over so quickly with the following dialogue between Mirabel and Abuela, almost as if it was only a means to an end of bringing about “the moment” between Abuela and Mirabel. But I will address this shortly. I want to focus on the former first. Look at the specifically Christian imagery that is brought into play here. If you need, watch the actual scene. He’s at the river, he stretches his arms out, and he is slain. It is in that moment that the candle, the candle that was lit at the start of their marriage, blazes up, lighting up the darkness and blasting back the ones who would be their demise, becoming an eternal flame. From this candle, a house is made to shelter them, to be their new home, their new life.

What do these things symbolize? The river is a baptism, a rebirth for the people and soon his family. From Pedro’s sacrifice, new life is given to his family. Next, there is the magic candle. Candlelight and flames have long represented the Holy Spirit, which when given brings to light and life the new person now washed clean. This candle also clearly reflects the Christ candle, which those from a liturgical background will recognize, in addition to the unity candle. And best yet, they are dressed in their father’s house, a safe house, a house that gave them a literal new life. Then they are protected by the mountains, thus giving them a life they never would have known before, a life without the constant fear of death. Lastly, there is the symbol of the butterfly throughout the story, the symbol of rebirth and transfiguration. It directs Abuela and Abuelo to each other, it is etched on the side of the candle, it is featured in the walls of the house, Mirabel has a number of them embroidered on her dress, and one last butterfly leads Mirabel and Abuela back to the river of their rebirth. This family was reborn, blessed with gifts that make them new, to serve a greater purpose than themselves, to live a life free of the pain they knew before. This miracle given to them was more than a “second chance,’ but grace, and it only came because of the sacrifice of Abuelo Pedro.

Sadly, Abuela missed this message, and the writers did too. Instead of being thankful for the gifts she had been given, showing grace to her family, and using their gifts to help in gratefulness, she thought she needed to earn what she had already been given so she wouldn’t lose the gift. But you see, you can’t earn your salvation, nor do you have to work to make up for the gift you have been given. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a gift. But that is exactly what Abuela had done. In addition to the song quoted above, she also tells Antonio this on his gift night, “I knew you could do it.” She says this as though he did something to get the gift that he received, even though it was a gift received, and likely through the spirit of his grandfather. Further, she raises her family with the idea that they must continue to earn their miracle. Thus, her children and grandchildren now view their gifts from grace as an impossible burden rather than the gift of life that they were.

Now I think that the point of grace would have hit home at the riverside confession if it were not for the dialogue just after. Mirabel could have forgiven her Abuela and they could have reunited with Bruno, who also would have forgiven his mother. Together, as a family made new, they could have returned to their restored home. But that dialogue is there, and Mirabel misses the heart of Abuela’s story. Instead of offering her Abuela forgiveness in light of all the wrong she had done (and just repented of!), Mirabel speaks as though Abuela had saved them, the miracle came from her, and as if all the bad was actually good. And then they go back to build their own house instead of it being built around the candle and their Abuelo’s gifts! This was an opportunity missed.

Abuela did mess up. She put so much pressure on her family that even her own son felt guilty for his gift. But unlike how Abuela abandoned him, he never abandoned his family. In many ways, Bruno is like his father. Not just in looks, he’s also funny like him. Best of all, he sacrificed his own happiness and life to take care of his family. His gift was to reveal the truth to people, which only made them angry and reject him because they did not like what they heard. He is alone. But even when their house was crumbling around them, and they chose to remain completely oblivious to its happening and cause, including Abuela, Bruno stayed. Instead of running off, which he would have been justified to do when everyone around him rejected his gift, he stayed to protect his family. He worked thanklessly for years making sure the house stayed together, protecting Mirabel.

But back to the river, for there are some other hinted-at Christian elements that miss the truth because the writers lack it. Mirabel and Abuela have a moment of remembering the past, and especially, remembering the “baptismal” life that they were given. They even go back into the river, the place where Pedro died to save them. That is when the son, Bruno, returns. True to form, Disney makes him the bumbling idiot he must be, missing the heart-to-heart his niece and mother just had. While Abuela kisses her son, the whole scene felt like a dismissal of Bruno and more of a “he needed to be forgiven” moment rather than the other way around. Bruno never gets to have his redeeming moment, and Abuela isn’t absolved the way she should have been because both women ignore the main point: it is only because of Pedro that they have this new life, and it is only because of Bruno that they have reached this point of resolution.

At the end of Encanto, the message you get from the writers is “it’s ok to just be you.” That, frankly, is a lackluster message at best, and it is essentially the same one they have provided in the last couple of movies, like Brave, Frozen, and Moana. What does it mean to just be you? Are you just ok? I found that message to be unhelpful in Frozen, for if it were true, I think Elsa would have realized it long before her duet with her mother. And the same is true with Encanto. Great, Mirabel finally sees herself in her family at the end of the film. Yes, Abuela needed to treat her better. But that wasn’t the actual problem. Mirabel is a miracle as any child is. But as she was, she was not okay either. She was just as broken as the rest of the family. The central miracle, the one that without it caused the house to crack (notice that one scene shows the cracks behind Abuelo?), was the one that Abuelo gave.

Forgiveness was needed, and so was a return to grace, the heart of forgiveness. Abuela wasn’t enough, and neither was Mirabel. It was the work of others that brought them together, and it was the work of a father that graced them with life in the first place. They weren’t ok as they were. They needed to be reborn at that river, remembering what brought them there and why it mattered. They needed to learn grace, forgiveness, and love. That was the encanto, and that is what was missed in the story.

But, the writers couldn’t have that. They couldn’t have a church with a solid foundation or any real connection to Christianity other than a token (and odd) priest (I mean, this is Columbia. It is very Christian. It wouldn’t’ have been culturally appropriate without some passing inclusion). And they don’t want a central religious message. They don’t want the truth and the whole truth, least of all if it comes from Bruno. It had to come from a spunky girl who just wanted to be herself. And in doing so, they provide a halfhearted “be yourself!” message in what is otherwise a fun, enchanting film. But by missing the grace, by infantilizing the men, by ignoring the evident Christian elements so that they might prove a completely separate point, their story loses its heart, because the miracle, the encanto, was to be loved by a father so much that he gave his life so his family might live.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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