It’s interesting, when art is done well—as artists try to portray truth to the best of their ability, you can’t help but stumble upon the things of God. God is the God of truth. Art is most often done in storytelling form, whether it is a moment of a story frozen in a painting or sculpture, or set to motion in music, literature, or even film. Good art not only portrays truth most accurately, but it does so in such a way that it transcends generations and people groups.
I finally watched the film “Encanto” with my kids. I had heard many people say the subtext of this movie was deeper than most. So, we snuggled up on the couch and watched it to see what everyone was talking about.
Encanto is the story of a family, who have been gifted with a miracle. This miracle, represented by a candle, imparts a gift upon each member of the family. When each family member gets old enough, they get their own room, and the miracle reveals that family member’s gift. Some of the gifts given are: super strength, super hearing, the ability to heal others through food, to make flowers grow anywhere, to control the weather, talk to animals, or prophesy the future, and so on.
The matriarch of the family—the grandmother, reminds them all that they were given their gifts for the purpose of serving the village in which they live. It is their purpose. If they don’t use their gifts to serve others, they’ll lose their miracle.
It all looks really great and beautiful from the outside, until one family member comes of age, Mirabel, and the miracle does not give her a supernatural gift. It appears she is miracle-less. She doesn’t get her own room, and grows up in the nursery, being the one family member that isn’t “special” in some way.
No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room of Mirabel not having supernatural abilities—least of all her grandmother, who fears that Mirabel not being given a gift is a sign that the family miracle is weakening, and their family’s place in the village might be in crisis.
So the grandmother pushes harder and harder on the rest of the family members with supernatural gifts. Push harder. Do your best! If we have to make sure that we keep the miracle strong! It’s up to us to preserve the miracle! As the movie goes on, you notice the stress all of them are living in, trying to “keep the miracle strong” that was their free gift. One of the older sisters with supernatural strength sings:
“If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations
Would that free some room up for joy
Or relaxation, or simple pleasure?
Instead we measure this growing pressure
Keeps growing, keep going
'Cause all we know is
Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that'll never stop, whoa
Pressure that'll tip, tip, tip 'til you just go pop, whoa-oh-oh
Give it to your sister, it doesn't hurt
And see if she can handle every family burden
Watch as she buckles and bends but never breaks
No mistakes just
Pressure like a grip, grip, grip…”
The stress of perfecting, and improving on the miracle given starts to make the foundation of the family home crack. The more it cracks, the more they push to perfect and improve. Hold it together! Be better! Do more! It’s never enough.
The pressure to use their gifts perfectly starts to erode the love in the family, as bickering breaks out, and there is no fruit of love, just pressure to perform and blame. It’s Mirabel, the one not given the gift that pursues the truth of what is going on—convinced that she must be the problem. What she finds is the prophet, (another family member) hiding inside the house. He was living in hiding because he had seen a vision of the cracks in the family house, and shared the vision—but because they feared what he saw, he was banished from the family. Unwilling to abandon his family in danger, the prophet hides inside the walls of the house, frantically patching the cracks from the inside, trying to buy them more time, as the cracks grow more and more.
But it isn’t Mirabel who is causing the house to crack, neither is it the prophet. It’s that the family had shifted from faith in the miracle, to faith in themselves to make the miracle happen. They had started seeing themselves as the source of the miracle, not the recipients of the miracle. That tiny little shift eroded the foundation of the house, dooming them all. The more pressure they put on themselves to produce the miracle perfectly, the deeper the cracks went.
Adults watching this movie alongside their kids are processing the story this movie is showing. Psychologists point out this might be Disney’s way of exploring “Internal Family Systems Theory” which is a way of exploring various people’s responses to trauma, much like Pixar’s “Inside Out” explores how our brains develop, grow, and process information.
But beyond the psychological implications, what is the theological connection? This movie shows what happens when we confuse vocation and sanctification. Justification and sanctification (grace) are gifts we are given, not something we make happen. Vocation is how we use this gift to benefit our neighbor, but it isn’t contributing to the beauty and mystery of the gift. We aren’t the source or strength of the miracle.
Replace the word “miracle” with “grace” and all of a sudden, this movie hits home hard for most Christians. It’s ok if you cry.
The more conversations I have with friends who talk about spiritual trauma say this story of Encanto gives them a picture of what hurt them. The gift didn’t stay gift for long. The gift became pressure, a burden, or our way of proving to everyone around us that we belong in the family. And when we can’t produce the gift everyone is expecting, do we even belong at all?
This beautiful story has the family hit rock bottom, and lose everything before they can recognize the miracle as a miracle again. I’ll try not to give away the ending, but there’s a beautiful thread at the end of the story that weaves together the concepts of miracles, as well as miracles working through ordinary means, and ordinary people.