Desirée Seebaran, Guest Writer
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD
Review: A lot of people have said it, sung it, memed it and parodied it, but dammit, I wanna talk about Bruno and the whole Madrigal clan.
Encanto is not the only shift away from the princess fairytale in the Disney canon, but it’s definitely one of the best yet. The story centres on a young Colombian woman called Mirabel, and her magical family Madrigal. But it has no traditional villains, no love interest for Mirabel. The family’s own miraculous gifts hide a darkness that threatens to destroy them.
But I’m getting into the spoilers too early. The movie’s most brilliant moments of resonance come from the archetypes it creates in Madrigal family members: the austere Abuela, so concerned with appearances. Her children: Mirabel’s mother Julieta who heals through food; Pepa, whose mood literally changes the weather; and poor Bruno, whose prophetic gift never tells people what they want to hear and who voluntarily disappears from the family until the movie’s third act.
Luisa and Isabela are Mirabel’s sisters and their archetypes are strong as well: the family beast of burden and perfect one, respectively. But it is in this generation that the miracle begins to unravel. Mirabel never receives a miraculous gift, but when she has a disturbing premonition that the real family miracle – a place of safety – is about to be destroyed, she goes on a quest to find out why. And she discovers the cracks: that her sisters both feel trapped, bound by their gifted role in the family, without space to explore different parts of themselves.
“If I could shake the excess weight of expectation,” Luisa croons in her hugely popular ballad Surface Pressure, “would that free up some room for joy? Or relaxation? Or simple pleasure?” For many women and men of colour, this song meant feeling seen after so many years as the unseen “strong one” in the family. It is so apt that the cracks in the family miracle start with the person who’s physically carrying everything.
And Isabela’s physical perfection (she’s the traditional princess archetype – long flowing hair, lauded figure, never trips over her own feet like Mirabel) extends to creating perfectly sculpted floral and shrub arrangements with the flick of a wrist. But Mirabel discovers in her eldest sister an eagerness to escape the confines of roses and Colombia’s national flower to play with other native flora that are just as beautiful, but maybe don’t take as well to being tamed.
Which leads us to Bruno. I’ve rarely seen a better metaphor for someone struggling with mental illness in a family where there is no place for weakness and vulnerability. Bruno’s gift breaks him eventually: the song caricature of a mischievous, sadistic imp struck me as wrong even before I watched the film. Bruno’s disappearance is shown to be a red herring. He’s never left the family, just left the room that represents the gift and now lives in the walls of the house with only rats for company, “kitchen-adjacent.” He is longing for the warmth and love and healing of his family, but isolates himself to protect them from the destructive power of his gift.
Abuela “runs the show” in Family Madrigal. It is her insistence on everyone using their gifts to keep the family strong that creates the pressure that breaks Bruno, weakens Luisa and squeezes creativity out of Isabelle. But the gift that the family holds is born out of Abuela’s own trauma: fleeing faceless men who threatened their entire village and losing her brave, young husband Pedro to the threat. She interprets the gift bestowed on the family as an awesome responsibility to carry, to hold by never making a mistake, by being perfect. But I saw the family miracle as one bestowed because her husband sacrificed himself, not only for his own wife and children, but for an entire village who was fleeing. At the end, Abuela looks within herself and admits her own repression: “I thought I would be a different woman. I thought I would have a different life.” How many of us have said that to ourselves? I was mad at Abuela for most of the movie, but she too was broken, and needed to embrace the cracks to heal.
I would have loved to see more of Julieta’s story, or an admittance that everyone insisting on keeping Pepa calm in order to keep the weather sunny is a crazy-making endeavor. But I loved that Pepa’s husband Felix exulted in her changing moods, hurricanes and all. And Antonio, the littlest member of Family Madrigal, had a purity and innocence rarely allowed black boys on film. Chatted with a male friend about it and he mentioned how that small thing was deeply healing to witness.
Encanto is a movie that everyone should watch, whether you have kids or not. And for many, it may be a excellent way to have age-appropriate discussions about family expectations, mental illness and how trauma changes people. And the songs! They’re so good they’ve been haunting my sleep for weeks. And that would take me another 800 words to discuss so let’s quit while we’re ahead. Encanto: watch it, ruminate on it, and let the story help to heal you as it has so many of us.
Desirée’s Score: 8.5 out of 10
Desirée Seebaran is a writer and editor living in Trinidad and Tobago. She can recite the script of the Lion King by heart.
Editor’s Note: Very special thanks to our first time guest writer Desirée. We found her review thoughtful, incisive and charming (Get it? Encanto? Charm? Charming? You get it) and we hope you Red Mango Readers did as well. And you can check out more Disney-fied content below: