In a 2014 piece, “The Story We Tell about Love,” I described the tendency toward a “fixed mindset” about love — the notion that love simply happens to you with little cultivation required — that I observed in young people (myself included). I lamented “the toxic messages of Hollywood” and reductive narratives that pit individual expression against familial obligation, and I wished “for fiction and film and song to tell a more true-to-life story about love.”
Today, I’m wondering if we’ve entered that new era. In recent years, I’ve been delighted by the messages about love in movies like Disney’s “Frozen,” and most recently in “Encanto,” which won the 2022 Golden Globe for Best Picture–Animated earlier this month. As Ross Douthat observed in a recent tweet, “Encanto” is the fifth Disney movie in a row that does not have at the center of its plot a romantic love story, a trend Douthat interprets as a sign of societal decadence.
I’d like to offer a different perspective: “Encanto” may not be the kind of witness to romantic love and marriage that we’d expect, but it’s the kind of witness credible today, given the general scene of relationship wreckage.
Many young adults who came of age in the wake of the sexual and divorce revolutions watched as children while their parents chased sex and romance at the expense of commitment. The young man who recalls walking in on his father in bed with another woman. The young woman whose grandparents raised her while her mother cycled through sexual relationships. While sexual desire and romance are of course good and necessary to the continuation of civilization, they are so easily disordered; the eroticization and romanticization of love does not serve the longevity of the family.
“Encanto” is a story of generational trauma and family dysfunction, two common reasons young adults forgo forging their own families. Set in Colombia, “Encanto” is about the intergenerational Madrigal family, whose members each have been given a miraculous gift to use for the good of the community (uncanny strength, the ability to heal people with food), except for Mirabel, who is a kind and thoughtful but apparently average protagonist. Yet when the magical house in which they live starts to crack, the fate of the family is left to Mirabel.
What ensues is not a tale about a misunderstood and mistreated heroine who escapes family and community to find her true self. Instead, it is the story of a daughter and granddaughter whose journey takes her even deeper into family relationships, especially the broken ones. She emerges — as does the whole family — with a new sense of her own dignity and worth (“The miracle is you, not some gift, just you… All of you”).
Such a message about the unconditional dignity of each person is arguably pro-life, and exactly what’s called for in response to our meritocratic society. Furthermore, far from a fixed mindset of love, this narrative arc models a countercultural belief in the possibility of real forgiveness and reconciliation (even in the face of serious wrongdoing).
Remarkably, it is precisely in the place where the family trauma occurred (the untimely and self-sacrificial death of Abuelo Pedro) that the family is given first the miracle of the gifts, and then the gift of reconciliation. On the same riverbank, Abuela apologizes to Mirabel for her controlling behavior and then hangs her head in shame, “And I am so sorry. You never hurt our family, Mirabel. We are broken because of me.”
Here, Mirabel sees her abuela in a new light, with empathy born from an understanding of the context of her suffering. “Abuela, I can finally see,” Mirabel says as she reaches out her hands with palms upward, and Abuela takes them:
You lost your home. Lost everything. You suffered so much. All alone. So it would never happen again. We were saved because of you. We were given a miracle because of you. We are a family because of you. And nothing could ever be broken that we can’t fix… together.
The old cultural script — about an individual who finds freedom by severing attachments instead of growing with them — is increasingly tedious and tired. Interdependence is the resurging paradigm. (This is highlighted most beautifully in the penultimate song of the film, when Mirabel and her family are reconciled and the village townspeople are coming forth with tools, in exuberant song — “Lay down your load/ We are only down the road/ We have no gifts, but we are many/ and we’ll do anything for you” — ready to labor alongside the Madrigals in the work of rebuilding their home.)
And while “Encanto’s” central plot is not a typical romance, the bedrock narrative of the movie actually is a romance — the original romance between Abuela and her husband Pedro, from which the family Madrigal springs. In a two-minute sequence that leaves me in tears every time I watch it, the film depicts their love story — from first sight, to marriage and the birth of triplets, to trial as the young family flees violence in their hometown. Set to the sound of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Dos Oruguitas,” the scene is reminiscent of the memorable sequence in Pixar’s “Up” and does more as a witness to the beauty of marriage than hand-wringing homilies ever will. (Notably, it’s the first I can recall seeing a Catholic wedding — in a church, with a priest — depicted in a major animated film.)
I take hope in the widespread appeal of “Encanto,” as evidenced by positive reviews on Focus on the Family’s Plugged In and from Rotten Tomatoes. (NRO did publish a negative review, but it mischaracterized and missed the point of the movie so completely I have difficulty taking it seriously.)
Perhaps the popular story we tell about love is becoming less fixed because in an anxious age brittle with unforgiveness, it has to — love must either bend or break. We are beginning to realize that in reality, the old scripts are less a choice between happiness and freedom on the one hand and obligation on the other; they are a choice between either the empty isolation of autonomous individualism, or the messy but meaningful interdependence of human connection. The new generation of stories are not picturesquely happy or neatly socially conservative, but insofar as they point to the potential transformation of familial wounds into strong and resilient love, they are marvelous.
This article was originally published by the Institute for Family Studies.