The Disney animated film, in a remarkable bit of timing, premiered on Disney Plus on Christmas Eve, just as a new coronavirus variant was walloping the country. I’ve now seen it an unspeakable amount of times, though it’s no surprise a film set almost entirely in one house has become a massive pandemic hit. One of very few small mercies over the past two years is that “Encanto” remains as charming and evocative on the 50th watch as it was on the first.
The film follows a family called the Madrigals, helmed by matriarch Alma, whose children and grandchildren all receive special gifts from their magical house that help them serve their community in rural Colombia. All except for Mirabel, a seemingly ordinary grandchild and the black sheep of her family, alongside her uncle Bruno, cast away because of his troubling visions.
Apart from giving me something new to feed the tiny beasts, streaming numbers also suggest “Encanto” has been an even bigger hit than Disney Plus’s last big box office success, “Shang-Chi.” Families are watching it and re-watching it with alarming frequency. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s boisterous, emotive soundtrack has reached No. 1 on Billboard and ousted Adele as the music adults are secretly crying to in their cars. (I hope I’m not the only one spending my nights silently weeping to the eclectic yet haunting medleys.)
And the music is really good. No one can reasonably deny the appeal of the film’s big hit, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” or the sleeper bop “Surface Pressure,” even if my son has banned me from singing either of these songs out loud in the house. But one reason I think kids (and I) find the film so enchanting and addictive may be the parallels to our own shrinking worlds, the way so much of the action and heart of “Encanto” surrounds the function and form of the family home, shaped as it is by our fears, anxieties and love.
At the start of 2021, my family of four was lucky enough to move into a tiny three-bedroom house with a small but private backyard. After spending 2020 in a ridiculously small apartment where the kitchen served as living room, office and day care, moving into an actual house felt like winning the lottery. But still, spending 24 hours a day here, this, let’s say, intimate space feels too crowded by half, as it tries to fulfill the rapidly shifting, wildly differing and very specific needs of two adults and two kids. I can’t count how many times I have imagined myself opening up a bedroom door only to find a secret, cavernous space behind it, much like the magic rooms of “Encanto,” where I could disappear and finally regain some autonomy.
The casita of “Encanto” is both big and small. It holds the Madrigals tightly in one moment and then leaves them to wander freely, unencumbered by physical limitations, the next. It’s an allegory for what a family can be — both a warm space you can retreat into and a safe foundation from which to explore the expanse of your own life. But the pandemic has also necessarily heightened the role both family and home play in our lives, forcing us to reexamine the boundaries and borders of each. “Encanto” is primarily a story of feeling like an outsider and finding your role in the family unit, but it’s also about the beauty and constraints of home, of understanding the lengths and limits of the four walls surrounding you every day.
For all of us, but for the kids especially, being able to imagine many worlds and many lives within the home will help sustain our energy and sanity through these next dark months. And barring that — we can always watch “Encanto.”