Encanto's Parable of the Talents
Why doesn't Mirabel get a door?
I enjoyed the Disney movie Encanto a lot more than I expected to. I had watched the trailer and listened to the soundtrack before seeing the film, and the first struck me as confusing while the latter just didn’t grab me. There wasn’t a single song on it that had the anthemic power of “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana or “Let It Go” from Frozen, and I just couldn’t imagine kids getting that into the patter-song-level freneticism of “The Family Madrigal,” or the sad serenity of “Dos Oruguitas,” and certainly not the weird downer, “We Don't Talk About Bruno.” (Shows how much I know.)
But I found the film itself, well, enchanting, once I understood what it was about: not about finding your own special magic, nor about getting out from under crushing family expectations, but about achieving a successful generational transition.
To recap what everybody must surely know by now (and if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it “spoiled,” just stop reading anything I write about movies; I don’t know how to talk intelligently about a film without engaging with the story, and it’s impossible to engage with a story without revealing what happens in it), the Madrigal family live in a magic house in a valley in Colombia protected by high mountains. The house was created (and the mountains raised) by a magic candle that Abuela (Grandma), the family matriarch, clung to along with her triplet babies while on the run from bandits who killed her husband. Not only is the candle magical, but so are Abuela’s descendants: each has a magical gift, a power granted by the candle, that they receive in a ceremony when they turn five years old. Along with the gift, they get a magical door to a room of their own that expresses the magic of their gift. So, for example, we see the newest member of the tribe to come of age, Antonio, get the gift of communicating with animals, and his room houses a rainforest filled with creatures to frolic with.
The only member of the family never to receive a gift, a door, or a room of her own: Mirabel, the heroine. Her ceremony fails, and so even in her late teen years she’s still living in the nursery, with Antonio (until he gets his own room).
The plot of the film revolves around a threat to the house — it’s beginning to crack up, and only Mirabel is willing to acknowledge this. She must go on a quest to find out what’s happening, and to try to prevent the house from coming apart, a quest that will require her to get her super-strong sister, Luisa, to open up about the cracks she sees in the house and in herself; to find her future-seeing brother, Bruno, and discover what his final vision was that sent him into hiding; to reconcile with her perfect rose-strewing sister, Isabela, and help her to explore the real potential of her botanical gift; and, ultimately, to confront Abuela herself about the problems festering under her leadership of the family.
That confrontation was one of a few moments in the film that gave me pause about where the narrative was going, only to find myself impressed and moved by the intelligence of the creators in resolving their plot in a far better way than I anticipated. (Encanto is right up there with Moana in that regard.) Abuela has indeed put an enormous amount of pressure on the family, and that is, in fact, why so many members of the family have a dysfunctional relationship with their own genuine gifts: why Luisa is terrified of ever showing weakness or vulnerability; why Isabela believes she has to be perfect; why Bruno believes he is causing the problems he foresees; why weather-working Pepa can’t seem to summon anything but rainclouds. Apart from little Antonio, I’m not sure there’s anyone in the family who has a clearly healthy relationship with their powers, and he’s only five years old. I was very worried that the movie might decide that she had “harmed” the family, and that even if it forgave her because of the trauma of losing her husband, it would still blame her for the house cracking up.
Instead, Mirabel explicitly rejects this interpretation of their family history. Far from being a harmful response, Abuela’s actions saved the family, built it back up, and anchored a community around them. Her style of leadership was highly functional for its time, and for some time after. But that time has passed. Now a transition needs to happen where her leadership, and her style of leadership, gives way to something less controlling and more empathetic, not because one mode is bad and the other is good, but because one is what the family needed then and the other is what the family needs now. And the head of the family has to be someone who can provide the kind of leadership the family needs.
So when all of this is spoken and understood, and the house is destroyed and rebuilt (with the help of the community that the Madrigal family provided for with their gifts all these years), Mirabel gets to open the front door of the new house — and lo and behold, the magic has come back, thanks to her. She’s finally found her gift after all.
If that’s what she found, though, why didn’t she get a door when she was five?
I can easily imagine a version of the film where she did. Instead of it being Bruno’s prophecy that showed her in front of a house cracking up, her door would show that image, and behind it she would find a normal room instead of a magic kingdom. The mystery wouldn’t be “why didn’t she get a door?” but “why can’t we see her powers?” and the foreboding about the cracking house on her door would be an anxiety shared across the family, and not only a secret between Bruno and Abuela.
I’m not suggesting that such a film would be superior; on the contrary: I think it would have been clearly inferior to what Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith created. All I’m saying is that there would have been an internal logic to it. If Mirabel’s gift is that she can empathize with and see what’s genuinely troubling other members of her family, and if all gifts come from the candle and are recognized by the house, then logically her door would reveal her gift. If that gift proved to be misunderstood, well, how different would that be from the misunderstandings that attended Bruno’s gift, or Isabel’s?
For me, the fact that she didn’t get a door when she was five suggests that what she brings to the family is categorically different from the gifts with which her siblings and cousins are blessed. They have what we think of as talent: some innate ability that requires development to reach its full potential, but that is at least partly inborn and manifests early. A talent for music or language, for sports or mathematics — we all know people, who, from early childhood, we could tell were “gifted” in those ways. The “gifts” of the Madrigal family don’t track so perfectly with those kinds of gifts, but they can be read as analogous, and they track pretty well with aspects of personality that also have pretty significant innate components.
What Mirabel brings is something different: not talent, but character. That character manifests itself in her ability and willingness to see what others turn away from; in her physical courage in the face of danger and her determination in the face of criticism and even condemnation; and in her emotional openness and empathy toward everyone from her frightened cousin Antonio (who fears his ceremony will fail like hers did) to her mortified and ashamed Abuela (who believes the destruction of the house was her fault and her failure). Her character is incredibly valuable. It’s what saves the family — just as Abuela’s character saved the family two generations ago.
But it’s not a gift. You can’t spot it at five years old and relentlessly develop it through coaching and practice. Indeed, that kind of life might actually deform your character in certain ways, even as it develops your talents, just as it did the younger Madrigals. You have to live your life, as an independent self-directed person and as an embedded member of a family and community; you have to face the world and face yourself. The wound of being left out of the magical family circle is part of what makes Mirabel who she is, and her response to that wound — a giving, nurturing response — is a big part of what makes her the right person to succeed Abuela as the head of the family, just as Abuela’s response to the trauma of losing her husband is a big part of what made her the right person to lead in her generation.
She wasn’t handed any of that as an inheritance, because she couldn’t be. She had to become Mirabel to have that power. So, unlike the other members of her family, but like her grandmother, she doesn’t get her door until she’s become that person.