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'Encanto' and Magical Realism

I love Encanto.

It's so good. I mean, it's damned near perfect. Thoroughly enjoyed it. And I'm not the only one. I've heard a lot of people raving about the music, the way the story resonated, the history that it taps into--including multiple attestations that it does a great job of specifically depicting Colombian culture. And I've seen any number of think pieces explaining the ending or answering the question of whether or not Mirabel gets a gift in the end. Because while the story definitely resonated, it didn't resolve very satisfactorily for a number of viewers who are used to American-style storytelling.

So, rather than try to simply provide an answer (which, incidentally, is "yes, but also no"), I want to explain why the question doesn't really matter. It isn't the point. And to explain what I mean by that, we need to talk about Magical Realism.

Digression in 3... 2... 1...

Magical Realism is genre of literature that originated in Latin America in the 1930s. It's a pretty broad genre and therefore a bit tricky to pin down, but there are a few common hallmarks, namely that the setting is modern and realistic, and that magical things happen. The big thing that differentiates it from Urban Fantasy--apart from its roots in Latin culture--is that with Magical Realism, the magic isn't supposed to be explained. There aren't wizards in this world, there wasn't a fairy godmother who granted wishes, nothing like that. Magical stuff happens when it happens, and the characters deal with it. Often, this involves taking metaphorical language and making it literal. Consider the ending of Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate in which Tita, having just eaten a bunch of candles, remembers her lover and the heat of his memory causes the candles to ignite and makes her burst into flames. When thought about literally, it's absurd, but it resonates at a metaphorical level.

So, you know, that kind of thing.

It's one of those genres that's really popular in huge swaths of the world but doesn't get a ton of traction with mainstream American audiences (the other one that leaps to mind is Farce). It just doesn't align with our storytelling sensibilities, as we tend to prefer entertainment that at least pretends to be grounded in reality. But every now and then a creator will sneak elements of it into something that gets mainstream American appeal, and it's only after you think about it for a while and kind of look at it sideways that you think oh yeah, that was Magical Realism, I guess. The best example I can think of in the last few years is Alejandro G. Iñárritu's film Birdman. That said, there are echoes of that sort or literalize-the-metaphorical storytelling in other genres, including the most popular film genre in America right now: superhero movies.

Consider these examples. Iron Man is a redemptive hero who is trying desperately to atone for having become rich as an arms dealer, having now seen the destruction his weapons have caused. And he does so while wearing a suit of armor that's powered by his damaged heart. Get it? One of my favorite comic book heroes is Ms. Marvel, who has yet to make her screen debut. She's a teenage polymorph who has to deal with being a teenager and her superpower is that her body is growing and changing in unpredictable ways. Not subtle at all. Sometimes it's less about the personality than the role that character plays in the narrative. In Pixar's The Incredibles, the family is spearheaded by a father who has to be strong for his family and a mother who's stretched too thin.

In that light, it's easy to see why some viewers would come away from the ending of Encanto confused or unsatisfied. Mirabel learns the lessons, does the work, grows as a person, restores the magic of their house, and so forth. It stands to reason that when she succeeds, she should be granted some power that was in her all along. That's how you would expect a superhero story--hell, even a by-the-numbers hero's journey story--to end. But it doesn't. Even though the magic is definitely tied to her, there's no indication that she ends up with a superpower. Because this isn't that kind of movie. The powers don't actually matter. They're not important. At all. This is a Magical Realism story about a young woman reconnecting with her family, and if you can accept that, then the ending makes perfect sense.

So let's dig in a little. The "gifts" in Encanto are--true to form--representations of that character's role in the extended family. Mirabel has an oldest sister Luisa who is super strong and has to fix everything for everyone. Which, if you know any oldest sisters, should be extremely recognizable. She has another sister Isabela who has to be perfect. Both of them have songs that recontextualize these "gifts" as burdens. Her mother makes people healthy by feeding them. Note, this is not a practical superpower that we're using to tell a superhero story. These are literal externalizations of internal metaphorical traits. She has a cousin who can hear everything (a gossip), another who can turn into anyone (a clown, does impersonations), a literally tempestuous aunt, and a weird uncle who has been effectively disowned because he always brings bad news. This is basically everyone's extended family, right? Even the house fits into this mold, as it is the magical representation of the concept of family. It grows to accommodate new members. It keeps them clothed, fed, and protected.

So why doesn't Mirabel have a gift?

Well, frankly, it's because she's the protagonist. This is a story about discovering the importance of family, and the source of her conflict is that she feels like the only one who isn't special. Which, again, should be achingly familiar to just about anybody. Now, if this was a typical American-style story, her journey would be about learning that she was always special, she just didn't realize it, and this would manifest in the form of some ironic power about being able to connect with other people or some such that didn't feel magical but totally is. But this isn't that story and that isn't her arc. And to understand why, let's take a brief look at who the antagonist of the movie is.

Antagonists aren't always villains. Sometimes they're otherwise good people who just happen to be standing in the way of the hero. Frequently they're also positioned as a negative mirror image--a version of the kind of person the hero might become if they were to go down the path of the dark side. In Encanto, the person who is the most opposed to Mirabel is also the one who is the most similar to her: her Abuela Alma. Alma is also very focused on the health and stature of the Madrigal family and, like Mirabel, she's the only person born into the family who doesn't have a gift. That's because the house--and by implication, the family itself--was her gift, her miracle that she received after the death of her husband. Where the two differ is that Alma chooses to ignore the problems and faults in the family. She shuns Mirabel as an embarrassment. She was complicit in the exile of her son Bruno. And when cracks in the house start to appear and it seems like the magic is faltering, she denies it vehemently.

Mirabel's journey, then, is to try to mend the family by openly acknowledging the cracks and trying to heal them. She has to reconnect with her estranged uncle. She has to reconcile with her sisters, of whom she is initially resentful. In doing so, she learns that they aren't exactly as powerful as she'd been led to believe. Her sister Luisa confesses to having moments of weakness. Her sister Isabela confesses to wanting things to not be perfect every now and then. Because, again, powers don't actually matter! But in the end, it's not enough. The foundation cracks and the house is destroyed. And then, in the emotional climax of the film, Mirabel must reconcile with Alma, and they do so by confronting the past and acknowledging the pain that is tied in to it. They return to the river where Alma's husband Pedro was murdered--cut down by faceless colonizers. This was the first time Alma had returned to that river since the murder happened; it had been literally walled off by geography until the destruction of the house rent the mountain apart. This was also the first time that Mirabel was forced to confront just how violent that death had been. In her initial telling of the family's origin, Pedro simply disappears. But now we see his death in detail... or, rather, in an appropriate-for-small-children abstraction of detail.

They then rebuild the house themselves with Mirabel directing the effort and with help from the entire community. There's a place for everyone, even Uncle Bruno. And the new foundation of it is love for each other, which is magic, I mean come on people it's right there in the title! In Spanish "encanto" means "enchantment" but it also means "I love". Once the house has been built, it becomes magical, and we see an image of the family with Mirabel at its center. The implication is that she has replaced Alma as the matriarch of the Madrigal family.

So does she get a gift? Well, yes, but also no. Like Alma, the family is her gift. But does she get a power? No. Of course not. Because powers don't matter.

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