Creative storytelling can open doors to cultural perspectives

Mental health, generational trauma, and Disney’s Encanto

Authors: Geli Luna
  • Reading time: 4 min.
  • Posted on: February 1, 2022

(I just really wanted to talk about this film)

This article doesn’t spoil Encanto’s plot but talks about the characters, songs, and underlying themes.

By now you might’ve heard about the newest Disney film, Encanto, which was released on Disney+ last Christmas. It has gained praise from Latinx communities for its representation of Colombian characters (voiced by a Latinx cast), and its record-breaking soundtrack by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of In The Heights and Hamilton. 

I came into the film with the expectation of good songs and with the hope that Disney was going to do it cultural justice. I came out of the film with one thought in mind:

“Did Disney really just do that?”

If you’ve seen any of the more recent Disney animated films, you’d notice that there’s been a shift in focus from the romantic and often problematic story arcs of the ‘90s to ones that showcase more female independence, diverse cultures, and search for identity. But Encanto seems to have taken this a step further by talking about something I never expected a Disney film would: generational trauma in complex family relationships.

It seems heavy, I know, and at first it really doesn’t seem like that’s what the film is about. There’s a hint of seriousness when the opening scene tells the history of a family forced to flee their home, then it transitions to the present with a cheery musical number that introduces us to a loveable, three-generation Colombian family with magical powers. 

But as you keep watching and hear more of the songs, it starts to feel all too deep and eerily relatable. We meet a character who feels like she’s never good enough for her family, a golden child who needs to be perfect to be appreciated, a family member who’s been outcasted and erased for being their authentic selves. My favourite is the older sister Luisa, who has super strength and (quite literally) carries the family’s burdens, ashamed to appear weak. In her heartbreaking yet deceivingly upbeat pop song (with all singing, all dancing donkeys… yes, donkeys), she sings: “Under the surface, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.”

How can you recover from lyrics like “Give it to your sister, your sister’s older. Give her all the heavy things we can’t shoulder” and “If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free some room up for joy?”

Encanto does in three minutes what many sessions of therapy can take to unpack.

Moments like this made me forget I was watching a Disney film. Cries of anxiety and depression are dropped casually into really catchy music while we watch a seemingly perfect family confront the realities of how the family dynamic has taken a toll on their identities.

It’s not easy to talk about these things, especially when you come from a culture where mental health takes the backseat to family reputation and cultural expectations. But through accessible storytelling, the writers of Encanto have not only given adults a chance to reflect on their own buried trauma, but have found a way to make big, seemingly taboo topics feel less daunting to younger generations.

This kind of normalisation of mental health issues in children’s TV and films cultivates a society where kids grow up feeling comfortable talking about hard topics. Pixar did a similar thing with Inside Out (2015). In telling the story of a struggling 11 year old with a view into her anthropomorphised emotions, Inside Out has helped children (and adults) understand and express the full spectrum of their feelings without shame.

Encanto’s core message of generational trauma could’ve been told in a three-hour drama starring award winning actors. But because it was told using an approachable medium, and through the lens of an expatriated multigenerational family, it’s created something that resonates so deeply with kids and adults alike (especially those from non-White backgrounds.)

Through Encanto, I’d say Disney has earned some points of redemption for its past mistakes. They’ve listened to their maturing audience and opened up doors for diverse collaborators (many of Encanto’s writers, choreographers, cast and crew come from Hispanic backgrounds). They’ve chosen to tell a story that many communities can relate to but did so without degrading cultural traditions. (Sidenote: I am so over stories that portray non-White family dynamics as backwards and closeminded.) Conflicts arise, yes, but there is an understanding and acceptance that everything was rooted in unconditional love. Coming from a culture where family traditions and religion heavily influence personal identity, I resonated with that and appreciated how complex cultural perspectives were respected.

Along with all the things that made me reflect on myself, my family and mental health (ooft), the film reminded me of how much power there is in storytelling. Impact can be achieved through relatable, vulnerable characters singing catchy tunes and dancing with donkeys. In understanding audiences and channeling messages through accessible media, Encanto practiced what it preached in the lyric ‘making waves, changing minds.’ So if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it! And if you have seen it, watch it again, listen to “We Don’t Talk About  Bruno” nonstop, and get sucked into the TikTok blackhole with me and the rest of the Encanto-obsessed.