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‘Encanto’ Shows Legalism’s Ruin and God’s Gift of Grace

Disney’s film explores more than general redemption by comparing works-righteousness with refreshing Gospel solutions.
on Apr 7, 2022 · 2 comments

It’s easy to see Encanto as a film primarily about family. Refreshingly, the movie seems to focus on that theme: not a girl following her heart despite her family’s wishes, but working to bring her family together. Christians can find many parallels to church life, each theme probably worth its own article.

During a recent discussion of Encanto on Facebook, a friend of mine1 observed that the film had provided a good opportunity to talk to her kids about grace versus works. She summarizes the plot:

None of them did anything to initiate this miracle, but the more everyone tries to earn/keep the miracle, the more they drift away from the joy and unity it intended to bring to the family and the more harm they suffer in their relationships and souls. It is when they stop trying to be perfect for the sake of maintaining the miracle that they really experience peace and enjoy it.

The more I think about Danielle’s comment, and the more I listen to Encanto’s music—which, ahem, is often—the more I hear Gospel threads that enrich each of the five songs. In early songs, Encanto’s star family, the Madrigals, announce their works-orientation. The two sister songs easily parallel the experiences of the failing legalist and the successful legalist. Finally, the film’s last song embraces the miracle they already had, not working for it anymore but simply receiving it.

1. Abuelo Pedro’s miracle

The Madrigal family has a gift, which they all call a miracle. Fifty years earlier, Abuelo Pedro sacrificed himself to protect his wife, babies, and the others traveling with them. As he fell, the candle his wife held became an eternal flame, providing a home, protection from enemies, and magical gifts for Pedro’s offspring.

These Gospel parallels couldn’t be clearer if they’d tried. That’s important. The Madrigals’ miracle came as a gift because of someone else’s sacrifice.

2. Abuela Alma’s mistake

However, in a move familiar to any Christian, Abuela Alma has forgotten how the miracle came to her. In her first sung lines , she states her fundamental belief:

We swear to always help those around us

And earn this miracle that somehow found us …

Work and dedication will keep the miracle burning.

Somehow, this sacrifice-won gift has become something they must “earn.”

To some degree, the whole family has adopted this view. In Mirabel’s song “Waiting For A Miracle,” she insists that she wants a gift, too: “Come on, I’m ready! / I’ve been patient and steadfast and steady!” Under Abuela’s expectation that her family earns the miracle, it makes sense that Mirabel thinks this list of virtues means she’s ready to receive her gift.

Encanto (2021): Luisa3. Luisa, the failing legalist

Luisa’s song “Surface Pressure” tells the works-oriented story from another angle: someone who feels like she must keep performing, but “under the surface” is falling apart. Her pressure comes naturally from trying to earn something you can’t earn.

What’s more, Luisa’s power has begun to fray, so she feels like she’s failing. She confesses, “Under the surface, / I’m pretty sure I’m worthless / If I can’t be of service.” Hear that? Her Abuelo was willing to pay no less than the price of his life to save his family, including Luisa’s generation. But Luisa concludes that her worth is still undecided, hinging on her usefulness, her successes, her works.

Luisa parallels the Christian who has a legalistic attitude toward life and comes up short. She assumes God must be disappointed with her. She’s lost sight of the Sacrifice that has imbued her with great value. She lacks assurance.

Encanto (2021): Isabela4. Isabela, the ‘successful’ legalist

Isabela is the family’s “perfect golden child.” In fact, the word “perfect” recurs in almost all dialogue about her. She is the rare beast who seems actually able to live up to Abuela Alma’s high expectations. However, Isabela lacks joy and love, especially for her sister Mirabel.

But in Isabela’s song “What Else Can I Do?”, she experiences a full character arc. Just before the song, she confesses that her performance has not been from her heart, but “for the family.” Like the prodigal son’s older brother, her perfection is really joyless obedience to live up to her view of others’ expectations. Thus her perfection is surface-level, a kind of posturing, like the “perfect practiced poses” she sings about. She asks, “What would I do if I just knew it didn’t need to be perfect; / It just needed to be? / And they let me be?

Thus we gain deeper understanding of the line, “I’m so sick of pretty; / I want something true, don’t you?” Like Luisa, Isabela lacks assurance—Isabela wants the assurance that she can be genuine, dropping the performance, yet still loved and accepted.

It’s important that although Isabela starts growing plants other than “perfect” roses, these plants are not ugly and rebellious. Because my kids have grown obsessed with Isabela, I’ve looked up every single plant she mentions in her song: jacarandas, strangling figs, palma de cera, sundew, and tabebuia. All these plants are beautiful. The song does not celebrate rebellion, only freedom to grow, which can only happen when we toss aside “perfect practiced poses.” In fact, for me the song’s most moving line is Mirabel’s enthusiastic, “Grow!”

Not only does eschewing perfectionism allow Isabela to grow in her powers, but it also grows her love for Mirabel. Once Mirabel was only the sister who “always mess[ed] things up.” But once Isabela lets go of her perfection idol, she is free to grow—and to embrace her sister out of genuine thankfulness and love.

5. The finale of a family unburdened

In Encanto’s final song, we see the Madrigals reunite around the ruins of their home, accepting their brokenness—and therefore for the first time, accepting each other. This is the first time we see everyone in the family truly interacting with and enjoying one another instead of working to perform or prove themselves. Once their old idea of earning a miracle lies in ruins around them, love can thrive again.

The song has many touching moments, and I’ve never heard it with dry eyes. But by far the best is when the townspeople join together to sing, “Lay down your load.”

Yes, “lay down your load” naturally points to rebuilding the ruined Madrigal home. But if we have eyes to see the film’s inherently beautiful contrast between earning and receiving, and between legalism and the Gospel, that line has symbolic beauty. This whole film has revolved around a family learning to lay down its burdensome load, a load they never even needed to take on. They have nothing to prove because Abuelo Pedro already established and proved it all with his sacrifice. Trying to earn what he’d already given them only ruined the whole miracle.

We also have nothing to prove. Christ has already proven himself. We receive value, growth, gifts, and the ability to love one another all from the Sacrifice of Another. “Lay down your load” and dive deeper into the real-life miracle, of which this film’s lovely plot is but a shadow of the true glory.

  1. This was Danielle King, a member of my church as well as a writing and literature teacher at our home school co-op.
Shannon Stewart is a homeschooling mom of three and high school English teacher with an MA in English literature. She reads widely and voraciously, but her favorites are still books by and about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Her other interests include video games, Anglo-Saxons, and all forms of cheese. She blogs at The Word-Hoard, and all her (hitherto unpublished) fiction somehow ends up with the central theme of memory.
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  1. Ticia says:

    We had a long discussion today, how this could also be a discussion about spiritual gifts, and the expectations for people with “obvious gifting,” or those whose gifting isn’t obvious feeling left out and ignored for serving in church.

What say you?