Leah Temple Lang / Gavel Media

We Don’t Talk About Trauma: Encanto’s Exploration of Generational Wounds

Despite claims that Disney has grown stagnant over the last few years given the studio’s abundance of sequels and remakes, the recent success of the critically acclaimed Encanto offers a glimpse of hope that the studio is still capable of delivering creative and original content. The film has been granted numerous awards and just recently an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. Beyond these accolades, the film has also found a dedicated fan base on TikTok. While the film’s popularity can be attributed to its vibrant colors or unnaturally addictive soundtrack, its core narrative strikes the real chord as it is one that resonates deeply with several people. 

The theme which is central to the plot of Encanto is that of generational trauma. Generational trauma is described as the inheritance of historical trauma from previous generations to the next. The conditions that cause this trauma typically don’t allow for an environment where one can properly address and process the emotional consequences of such traumatic experiences, resulting in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as denial or minimization. These mechanisms tend to have profound impacts on the interpersonal dynamics between family members, encouraging a culture of repression and resentment. This cycle of unresolved trauma and consequential familial conflict is one which is strongly represented by the Madrigal family of Encanto

The film’s protagonist, Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), is a member of the Madrigal family where each member has inherited magical gifts that grant them unique abilities, with the exception of Mirabel. The antagonist is Abuela Alma, the matriarch of the family who often displays disdain towards Mirabel for her inability to receive a gift. 

The plot primarily revolves around this conflict, and as the casita, the house of the Madrigal family, is falling apart, Mirabel is desperate to fix it in an effort to prove her own validity as a member of the family. During this journey, and through the strong use of characterization, tone, and visuals, Mirabel learns of the hidden struggles that each family member endures as a result of their gift. These moments of revelation are commonly depicted through song, and each song is both memorable and incredibly effective at relaying the respective family member’s challenges. 

For example, her two older sisters, Isabela and Luisa, initially are described as, “one strong, one graceful, perfect in every way.” From this introduction, the audience comes to accept the notion that both of her older sisters have attained a level of perfection that Mirabel never will simply because of her lack of gifts. Luisa was blessed with superhuman strength, and Isabela had the ability to summon flowers at will. Mirabel, of course, had nothing.

In her song, “Surface Pressure,” Luisa reveals that she is overwhelmed by the mere amount of physically taxing duties she’s given, and this is emphasized throughout the song as she is forced to take on an insurmountable and endless assault of obstacles, such as fighting Cerberus or carrying the entire Encanto on her shoulders, all while protecting her younger sister from harm. In Isabela’s song, “What Else Can I Do,” she admits that she secretly resents her persona of beauty and flawlessness and wishes she could have the freedom to express herself.  This struggle is depicted through her newfound abilities to grow dangerous and toxic plants rather than her familiar flower, flor de mayo.

In both instances, Luisa and Isabela represent the struggles of the older sister. Isabela was burdened with perfection simply because she was the eldest and therefore needed to set the precedent and model for her younger siblings. She didn’t have the luxury of being carefree and she metaphorically endured the weight of all the pressure placed on her as the one who now represents the family and therefore its legacy. Luisa, the middle child, physically endured her family’s pressure, so she acts as icon for all the older siblings who sacrificed much of their free time and sanity to raise their siblings or earn extra money to provide for their family. Both Isabela and Luisa were individuals who prioritized the needs of the family above all else, even at the expense of their own wellbeing. 

Thankfully, the matriarch Abuela Alma received a redemption arch through her incredibly heart-wrenching backstory. In her song, “Dos Oruguitas,” she confessed to Mirabel that the source of the magic that supplied therefore the origin of the Encanto is actually the intense sorrow that Abuela Alma felt while watching her husband Pedro sacrifice himself for the community. The song recontextualized the entire film, and its director, Byron Howard, claimed that the song is the true, “emotional core of the movie.” This makes sense as it reveals to us that Abuela Alma and the rest of the Encanto's residents are all refugees of war, and the gifts her children received, along with the Encanto itself, were produced both in response to and in spite of the immense trauma they had experienced. The image of safety and comfort that the community finds in the Family Madrigal, and Abuela Alma’s dedication to serving them as well as upholding the Madrigal’s reputation now makes sense. However, instead of using all of this trauma to completely rationalize her actions and convince Mirabel that it was all necessary, it was simply used so that both Mirabel and the audience understand the root of her motivations. It is through this open admittance and acknowledgment of her trauma that Abuela Alma realized her mistakes and the family’s need to change. The true sign of her growth is when she comments, “I was so scared of losing the miracle, that I forgot who the miracle was for.” 

As the story progresses, we are exposed to the inner workings of the family. We learn that each of the members feels burdened by their gifts and the responsibilities that they accepted along with them. They all collectively strive to preserve the image of perfection that Abuela Alma cultivated so long ago. Perhaps, most importantly, we learn to sympathize with a character who was previously seen as anything but understanding, one who suffered severe trauma and who rationalized all of her actions based on it. We learn that Abuela Alma is simultaneously the sole reason her family received the blessings they had, as well as the curse that came with them. While Abuela Alma’s actions aren’t inherently justified because of her trauma, she is still a victim nonetheless, and one whose actions are at the very least understandable. 

Overall, Encanto is a film that is monumental in many ways. It’s a celebration of Colombian culture, but one whose story approaches that celebration in a manner that is universal, for better or for worse. The movie’s frightening ability to depict the consequences, as well as the origins of and motivations for preserving generational trauma, should be commended. The film forces us to confront and acknowledge rather than conceal our shared trauma, while also suggesting that we empathize with those who propagated it, offering us the possibility of reconciling with those who’ve hurt us.