When the turkey and pumpkin pie are gone but the night is still young, millions of Americans will be heading out to their favorite theaters for one of my personal favorite holiday traditions: a Thanksgiving movie. With a strong emphasis on extended family, Disney’s Encanto makes for the perfect finale to your family get-together. After the success of Disney Pixar’s Coco, Encanto takes us back to Latin America. This time with a trip to Colombia. And, just as Coco featured music in both English and Spanish, so does Encanto (composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Germaine Franco). Beyond the inclusion of Latin American languages and geography though, Encanto brings Colombian culture to the center of the Madrigal family’s story by skewing away from traditional Disney fantasy and instead highlighting elements of magical realism.

First Things First: Magical Realism 101

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At its simplest, magical realism is all about contradictions. It’s where hyper-realism meets hyper-fantasy, creating a wondrous blend of the two. It’s not pure realism – the average, everyday lives of everyday human beings – and it’s not pure fantasy either – where mermaids leap out of the ocean or fire-breathing dragons cast spells. Now, you might be thinking, hang on, all of Disney’s other movies aren’t just all mermaids and dragons – there’s plenty of humans in those stories too. That might be true, but one key thing that separates the world of Encanto from the world of most other Disney films is that Encanto is set in the real-life country of Colombia. When the creators of the film visited the Cocora Valley, they loved the area so much that they decided the Madrigal family would live there. The setting isn’t simply inspired by Colombia, it is Colombia. Disney movies that evoke pure fantasy are set in fictional lands that may be inspired by real ones. For example, Frozen takes place in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle – which is inspired by the Nordic lands – and the magic of Elsa’s ice magic, the troll magic, and the magic of the spirits exist as fantasy elements in the fictional land. On the other side, magical realism fills the traditional, natural world with mystic elements, and by doing so, allows the magical to feel normal, and the normal to feel more magical. With Encanto, we don’t have a princess that comes from a faraway, magical kingdom, but a magical family that comes from a place we could actually visit.

The Cultural Significance Of Magical Realism In Encanto

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Had the filmmakers created an animated Latin American film that takes place in a fantasy land, it simply wouldn’t feel authentic to the culture. Magical realism is deeply important to Latin American culture, and Colombian culture in particular, as the genre experienced a boom in popularity in the mid-20th century all throughout Latin America. Magical realism authors and artists pushed the boundaries of realism by asking questions about the endless possibilities of our world as, after all, our own world is pretty magical, so why do we need to create a fantasy world to be able to access magic? You may recognize the popular Colombian magical realist author, Gabriel García Márquez, and some of his most well-known works, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Or perhaps Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (we’ll touch more on this one later). These novels showcase the importance of magical realism in Latin American culture, just as realism defined the culture of the Italian Renaissance. Tapping into the real culture and real history of Colombia gives a deep feeling of warmth and respect to Encanto.

Encanto’s Familia Madrigal & Magical Realism

Image of a the Madrigal family tree from the Disney movie Encanto.

The Madrigal family lives in a magical house that has just as much life as any other member of the family. The house waves back using the windows when Mirabel says hello to it, and the floors turn into a slide to easily skate down them. Aside from the enchanted house, each member of the Madrigal family also has a special gift. Mirabel’s mother, Julieta, can heal anyone with her cooking, while her aunt can change the weather with her mood. It could be argued that the two talents combined are most likely direct references to Tita in Like Water for Chocolate, who can infuse her cooking with her emotional state. These different magical abilities extend to everyone in the family – an uncle who can see into the future, one sister that can make flowers bloom, and one with superhuman strength, and one cousin with advanced hearing, one that can talk to animals, and one that can shapeshift. That is, everyone except Mirabel has magical powers, making her (the one most similar to us) the odd one out. All these abilities are seen as normal and are not questioned by anyone. Magical powers exist freely within the rules of the story. The film takes a turn though when the house begins to crumble apart and in turn, endangering the magical powers of the family members. With everyone’s powers fading, the family turns to Mirabel to save her home and the Madrigal magic. Maybe the girl without powers is more special than everyone originally gave her credit for. Or, as is a common theme with magical realism, perhaps Mirabel’s normalness is really what makes her just as magical as anyone else.

The Symbolism Of Encanto’s Butterflies

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Colombia is home to about 3,500 different butterfly species, the largest variety of butterflies in the world. Beloved magical realist author Gabriel García Márquez is known for his use of yellow butterflies in many of his novels, such as the yellow butterflies that constantly follow the love interest Mauricio in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The creators of Encanto have extended the yellow butterfly motif into their own story, as seemingly a way of identifying magic and those with magical powers. Each member of the Madrigal family appears in their own promotional poster for the film, highlighting their special gifts. The posters feature the character names in elegant gold writing, and the characters themselves are all surrounded by lovely yellow butterflies. That is, everyone except Mirabel. Mirabel’s character poster is a little different. Mirabel’s name is hand-written in red paint, as if she had to add it there herself, and rather than yellow butterflies fluttering around her, her blouse and skirt are full of hand-embroidered butterflies of all different colors. Pink, blue, orange, purple, black. It seems that Mirabel has stitched onto her wardrobe every color of butterfly except yellow. While this is another artistic way of making Mirabel stand out against everyone else in the Madrigal family, it highlights the fact that Mirabel creates her own magic. Sure, this magic may look different from everyone else’s, but it is still magic. And more importantly, it is her magic. Mirabel is the one who decides and shows that she is just as special as anyone else in the family, allowing us all to see the magic that we can create ourselves each and every day, simply by way of being our own unique – and maybe a little quirky – selves.

Encanto’s Power Of Magic In The Ordinary

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By bringing the magical into the ordinary, magical realism lets the viewer see the magic as actually ordinary, and the ordinary as actually more magical. If we place the two on equal levels, we are able to look around the story – and in our own world – and see the magic of everyday, normal things. With this logic, of course Mirabel – a normal, ordinary girl – suddenly becomes the most magical of them all and the only one who can save the family’s magic. A deeply emotional heroine, Mirabel feels strong empathy towards others around her. Despite appearing to be the odd one out, she cares deeply for her family and would do anything to save them, even if she seemingly has nothing to gain in return. After all, it is not her magic that is at stake when the Madrigal house starts to crumble, but the magic of everyone else in the family. It is Mirabel’s heart and love for her family and home that make her magical, which was never seen as an outright, obvious gift. But instead, her magical gift was woven into her interactions with others, coming out in the way she cares for them. By seeing the magic that Mirabel creates within her and with her love for others, we are able to see the magic in each and every one of us. I think we can all agree that the world could use more magic. And if everyone’s own, unique magic looks a little different, that is not only okay, but something that should be celebrated.

Get tickets to Disney’s Encanto, hitting theaters Wednesday, November 24. FYI, select theaters are showing Encanto in Spanish. When looking for showtimes on the Atom Tickets website or through your Atom app, select the “Formats” dropdown menu and select Spanish language.

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