'Encanto' appeals so much to Filipinos, but perhaps not for a good reason

·8 min read
The Madrigal family possesses magical powers in Encanto. (Still: Disney)
The Madrigal family possesses magical powers in Encanto. (Still: Disney)

In the second week of 2022, Disney’s “Encanto” won the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film, and a few days ago, one of its tracks, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” surpassed “Let It Go” from “Frozen” as the highest-charting song from a Disney-animated film. As of writing, the animated movie has earned over $222 million worldwide.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven't watched the movie.

It’s definitely a hit, but it’s likely of a different kind for many Filipinos; one that stings and reminds them of some dreary memories from their own casitas. This is because although Encanto mostly references Colombian culture, the Madrigals are very much emblematic of a traditional Filipino family, all the way from their general premise down to the smallest details.

Expectations of immediate grandchildren

This image released by Disney shows Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, in a scene from the animated film
This image released by Disney shows Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, in a scene from the animated film "Encanto." (Disney via AP)

Isabela was only 21 years old when the family matriarch, Alma Madrigal (more commonly known as “Abuela”), set her up for an engagement with Mariano Guzmán - someone who matched her “perfection.” As early as during the planning stage of their dinner with the Guzmáns, Abuela had already been thinking that Isabela “will bring a new generation of magical blessings.”

At that age, Isabela still has a ton of baggage from being the “Señorita Perfecta” of the Madrigals. On top of that, Mariano wants five babies. That’s five extra people Isabela would have to support and take care of during a stage in her life when she can barely take enough care of herself to pursue her own endeavors.

Traditionally, Filipino parents look for grandchildren as soon as they find out that their daughters plan to get married, often without considering what their daughters want for themselves

Traditionally, Filipino parents look for grandchildren as soon as they find out that their daughters plan to get married, often without considering what their daughters want for themselves. As much as it’s valid to want to meet your grandchildren, we have to understand that our kids have lives of their own, and therefore should be able to make their own decisions.

Good thing Mirabel was there to help sort things out for Isabela. Otherwise, she would have been stuck in an unwanted and probably unhappy marriage.

The panganay (eldest child) syndrome

Don’t get me wrong, Isabela did have a lot of weight on her shoulders as the eldest child, but even as a middle child, Luisa seems to represent the eldest child syndrome best. Basically, when you’re the eldest child in a Filipino household, everyone will expect you to help with literally everything to the point that you have nothing left for yourself.

When you’re the eldest child in a Filipino household, everyone will expect you to help with literally everything to the point that you have nothing left for yourself.

To be fair, Luisa mostly helped the people of the encanto, but the thing is, she didn’t do it out of her own will; she did it because she was a Madrigal, and Madrigals are expected to share their blessings for the betterment of the community. Their family has a noble duty, but as we hear from Luisa in “Surface Pressure,” she really just wanted to relax and do things that make her happy.

The lyric "I'm pretty surе I'm worthless if I can't be of servicе” probably made a lot of eldest children tear up a little. But just like Luisa, we have to remember that we don’t have to be strong all the time. In fact, Luisa getting weaker after telling Mirabel how she felt may have signified how we won’t be able to help others if we don’t help ourselves first.

It is rebellion to stand up to yourself (but it’s also rebellion to stay silent)

If you speak up against your parents, you’ll get “Bakit sumasagot ka pa?” (Why are you talking back?) but if you don’t, you’ll get “Bakit hindi ka nagsasalita?” (Why don’t you talk to us?). There’s virtually no appropriate answer to them when they’re angry because they’re the adults and you’re the younger one, which, in a Filipino household, automatically means that they’re right and you’re wrong.

There’s virtually no appropriate answer to angry parents, which, in a Filipino household, automatically means that they’re right and you’re wrong

There’s a Filipino saying among adults that says “Papunta ka pa lang, pabalik na ako” (kind of saying “been there, done that”), which contextually means that because they’re older, they’ve experienced much more than the younger generations. It is often weaponized to dismiss children’s hardships, similar to how Abuela set aside Mirabel’s suffering in the name of preserving their miracle.

At some point, they would even blame Mirabel for the crisis surrounding the encanto without trying to acknowledge that she was trying to save it and make them proud – all because she was just a kid whom they wanted so badly to step aside.

Family hierarchy over anything else

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto”
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto”

In the Madrigal household, Abuela’s authority is absolute. She wasn’t necessarily some sort of dictator, but when she says something, everyone has to follow suit. This is precisely why characters such as Isabela and Luisa pushed their own needs and wants aside to conform to what the Madrigals “should” be. In the end, it is revealed that they didn’t really like what they were doing.

This somehow paints an image of Filipino children who get forced to take degree programs that they’re not passionate about. For example, if you’re in a family of lawyers, you’re automatically expected to become one as well. You have to continue the family tradition just because. No, you can’t take up art courses, and no, you can’t take up medicine. It has to be what the family wants for you, not what you want for yourself.

It has to be what the family wants for you, not what you want for yourself

Isabela’s lyric in “What Else Can I Do?” sums it up best: "I just made something unexpected / Something sharp, something new / It's not symmetrical or perfect / But it's beautiful, and it's mine.” She’s always been put on a pedestal as the golden child whose beauty makes flowers grow, but in the end, she found happiness in figs, vines and trees that didn’t have to be perfect all the time.

I won’t acknowledge your trauma completely, but here’s a hug and a kiss

After their casita fell to the ground, Mirabel ran away, and Abuela found her first in a very fitting location: the exact riverbank where they got their miracle. Abuela apologized and explained that all her actions were fueled by her fear of losing their home a second time. A few moments later, Bruno, the black sheep of the family, arrives and says “She didn’t do this! [...] It was me!” and all Abuela does is give her a hug and a kiss. Then, the happy ending begins.

Mirabel and Bruno’s deeply rooted trauma from Abuela’s sheer neglect was swept under the rug sounds like something straight out of a Filipino household

Of course, this might be an intentional creative decision by the production team and not some sort of insinuation, but the very fact that Mirabel and Bruno’s deeply rooted trauma from Abuela’s sheer neglect was swept under the rug sounds like something straight out of a Filipino household.

Sometimes, family members do say sorry, but it doesn’t extend to the other, more long-term ways they’ve impacted you negatively. They will hug and kiss you, though, or perhaps get you a gift.

Not talking about Bruno

Stills from the music video for ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno' (Disney)
Stills from the music video for ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno' (Disney)

There is no doubt that among the Madrigals, Bruno had the most powerful gift. They didn’t talk about him because he would “see something terrible” and it would happen, but the perspective should have been that his ability to see the future could help avert crises in the encanto. Instead, they ostracized him and pretended he didn’t exist.

We don’t talk about Bruno, no, no, but we definitely should

Stereotypes remain rampant not just in the Philippines, but in Asia in general, and they often result in the Brunos of Filipino households. For example, there are families who disown even their gifted children who come out as gender non-conforming later in life, or those who get diagnosed with mental illnesses that society often frowns upon - all to create the facade of what they think a perfect family should be.

We don’t talk about Bruno, no, no, but we definitely should.

Implications for Filipino families

As pessimistic as these correlations are, none of them mean that Encanto is a bad film. In fact, it’s extremely well-animated, has a solid soundtrack, and most of all, a breathtaking plot. Sometimes, there’s just some good in breaking down how art imitates life because even in fiction, we can find ways in which we can improve our reality.

There’s just some good in breaking down how art imitates life because even in fiction, we can find ways in which we can improve our reality

In 2012, the former president of the Philippine Psychiatric Association (PPA) said that having a “dysfunctional” family is the most common problem among Filipinos. According to him, “There are psycho-social stresses like economics, interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. But for the Filipinos, the heaviest is the family.” A decade later, we can only hope that we’ve made some progress in addressing these issues.

Antonio Gabriel D. Tongco is a writer and communication major who also likes to explore other facets of writing such as research and SEO. The views expressed are his own.

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