Encanto, the newest Disney animated musical, was released as Omicron spiked and many families hunkered down for a quiet, isolated Christmas. The magical Madrigal family at the heart of the film is also in a kind of lockdown, one that initially appears to be idyllic—until the cracks in their way of life start to appear.
The film is set in a sheltered village in Colombia during the civil war in the 1940s and 1950s, often referred to as la violencia. The village was created by enchantment (encanto), magic that raised mountains around the Madrigal family and walled them off from the evils of the world. It also gave the family their casita, an enchanted home that grants magical powers—strength, weather control, prophetic visions, and more—to each member of the family when he or she comes of age. These powers help them sustain their sheltered community.
The village is not so different from a Benedict Option enclave. And like any BenOp community, its members discover that refuge from external dangers is not enough to make them safe or happy. They must use their shelter well, and decide how to extend what they have received to others.
The film's heroine, Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), is the only member of her family without a magical gift. She looks for other ways to contribute to the community, but her family treats her differently. Her Abuela (María Cecilia Botero, with Olga Merediz providing the character’s vocals) is particularly uncomfortable around Mirabel. As Abuela nears the end of her life, she fears what will happen to the people she loves if their gift is withdrawn and the miracle fades away.
The family’s fractures are magically reflected in their surroundings: The casita begins to show cracks, and starts to crumble. But even when the house is whole, there is already something slightly wrong. Even in safety, the Madrigals’ lives are shaped by fear—of the outside world, or of being worthless, or imperfect. This is the same challenge that faces those who are attracted to thick Christian community primarily as a refuge from the outside world, rather than as a means to live abundantly for God. The aim of a refuge is to make space to offer an open, joyful witness, not to pull up the ladder behind you. But it is difficult to break habits of fear and despair.
In his 2018 Erasmus Lecture, “God As a Gentleman,” Rémi Brague argued that the Ten Commandments are God’s school for teaching his children how to fully escape slavery. Even after the Israelites are delivered from the physical threat of Pharaoh, they are not fully free. The shadow of their slavery lingers over them. As Brague puts it, “They had acquired bad habits of servility . . . their newly acquired freedom was fragile.” The Commandments instruct the Israelites to set aside time to rest and glorify God; to not give way to anxious desire for a neighbor’s goods; to cast off the fearful propitiation of graven images and false gods. These laws are a code for living as free men and women.
Before the encanto was formed, Abuela Alma, the family's matriarch, experienced la violencia directly. Her husband was killed in front of her; he never saw their children grow into their magic or the families they founded. Abuela’s love and fear are mixed together—she is grateful for the miracle, but she also clings to it too tightly, allowing her fear to lead to divisions and fighting in the family.
When the family fractures come to a head, their divisions, secrets, and distrust bring the casita down into rubble. But the most serious consequence of the crisis is the fissure that splits the protective wall of mountains around the village. Without their magic, the family members have to rely on each other—including Mirabel—to rebuild what they can. When the miracle appears to be lost, the stakes are lower, and the family is able to open up to one another and ask for help. They no longer fear that their own weaknesses cannot be incorporated into the family or the community. As they grow in trust and generosity, eventually, the magic returns. But the mountains are never shown to reseal.
The film doesn’t show us whether anyone travels through the new pass in the mountain. But the way is open now to anyone who finds it, whether it’s a new family seeking refuge, a member of the gifted Madrigal family venturing out to offer their gifts, or raiding militias bringing la violencia back to their doorstep. While the community is again exposed to greater dangers, it is also open to greater graces.
That’s a lesson Abuela learned in her youth, but struggled to retain. The film’s love song, “Dos Oruguitas,” plays during a montage of scenes from Abuela's life with her husband before his death. The song is about two oruguitas (caterpillars) whose love cannot be full and complete without an openness to death and change. They must separate, cocoon themselves, and die to their old way of life to be released as mariposas (butterflies). Their enclosure is temporary, and it is a kind of death, with the hope of a new, unknown gift. A Benedict Option community only says “no” to the world for the sake of a greater “yes” to God. And then the fruits of that “yes” must be poured into witness.
Or, as the Madrigals might have heard at their village church, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). The Madrigals are only able to retain their gifts when they hold onto them less tightly. Any community of refuge, especially a Benedict Option community, must find a way for its members to support one another in moving from fear to courage, scarcity to charity, walls to windows. Nothing in this world is safe—if we find refuge, it is for the sake of being emboldened to risk more for others.
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