Encanto: Soul Triptych Magic
Disney’s animated films are known for being enchanting. Whether we are taken deep into the forest to the castle of a Beast or swept off to the glorious savannahs of Africa, these films can take audiences somewhere, somewhen that is magical. In its sixtieth animated feature, Encanto, Disney again brings the enchantment, like the title indicates, as it presents the story of a non-magical girl trying to help and heal her magical family. Like a squib in a house of wizards, Maribel Madrigal is unable to communicate with animals, lift buildings, or control the weather (all abilities her family members possess), but she comes to understand that families and love are not about those kinds of gifts. In part, since the story is set in Columbia, the film relies beautifully on the tradition of magical realism. However, it also relies nicely on a very specific literary structure that we have often visited here: the soul triptych. Join me after the break for a look at the way in which the number three (and twelve), along with a familiar triune structure help Encanto weave its spell. And yes, we will talk about Bruno!
Like the Sands of the Hourglass
As we have discussed here often, strong story-telling often relies not just on words, but also on numbers. J.K. Rowling uses numbers with artistic deliberation, from the division of Harry’s adventures (and Voldemort’s soul) into seven bits to the complex Tarot-linked number symbols used in Troubled Blood. Suzanne Collins’s excellent use of multiples of three is one of the most powerful elements in her Hunger Games books (and one reason why The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is NOT a fourth Hunger Games book. There are only three of those).
Encanto does a lovely job with numbers, especially with the numbers three (more about that in a moment) and twelve. Twelve is a symbolically interesting number of, course, putting us in mind of the hours of the day and the months of the year. As many of us just wrapped up the celebration of Christ’s birth, we may recall those twelve days of Christmas (the days from Christmas to epiphany, not from December 13 to December 25). At first, it seems that Mirabel regards herself as the unlucky thirteenth in her family, because, counting her grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, there are thirteen people in the family. However, her grandfather Pedro has been dead for fifty years and her uncle Bruno (“We don’t talk about Bruno!”) vanished years ago, so there are really only 11 Madrigals at the beginning of the story. Eleven is a flawed number, and it is only through Maribel’s struggles and difficulties that her family is restored to twelve members, taking it back to that mirror of time twelve provides. This restoration happens by returning Bruno to the fold. Bruno, whose gift is prophecy, wears hourglasses embroidered on his poncho, and his lair is one of sand, so time is an essential element.
Time is also one of the most important themes of the entire story, as the Madrigal family works to overcome the hardships of generational grief and the fears of losing the ones we love. One of the central visual and song images in the film in that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, a powerful reminder of the forces of time and change, as well as a reminder that time and change are not always bad.
Three Cheers for Three!
The number three is also nicely mirrored in the three levels of time the story presents. The past, the present, and the future, as those of us reared on Schoolhouse Rock will well remember, give you three, and that’s a magic number. While most of the story takes place in the twentieth-century present (which is probably in the 1950s), there are flashbacks to the family tragedy and the miracle it produced, as well as flashforwards with Bruno’s vision, so the three times are all represented.
The three generations of the Madrigal family also echo the element of three. Maribel lives in the magical casita which is even more sentient than Hogwarts, with tiles and steps moving as needed, but which, sadly, appears to have many more than three floors (it’s hard to tell), along with her Abuela Alma, her parents, her aunt and uncle, and her first cousins (and Uncle Bruno, too, but we don’t talk about him…). The three generations are distinct. Abuela is the only representative of the older generation, having lost her husband just before the intervention of the miracle that created the casita and gifted each Madrigal child, at a specific time, with a special power. Her three children, Julieta, Pepa, and Bruno, are triplets. Pepa and Julieta are each married to a non-magical husband. This film has a strongly matriarchal theme, but the non-magical men are not treated as lesser or less important either for being men or for lacking special powers. Pepa and Julieta each have three children, making six grandchildren, just in case viewers have trouble keeping up with the three element.
Other uses of threes are in ample supply, from the three stripes on the wristbands of strongwoman Luisa to the three-leaf motifs used for Julieta to those three nifty circles that make up the occasional hidden Mickey that some of us Disney weirdos love to find. But the most interesting use of that triune structure is in the way the movie reinforces the magic trio idea we know so well here at Hogwarts Professor.
In case you’ve missed any of our many conversations here about the motif of the soul triptych, the short version is that stories, whether in books, transmitted orally, or presented on film, are often much more effective with the inclusion of the primal, elemental motif of a trio. Humans are triune–body, mind, spirit–so we respond well to the use of characters who work in a triptych, each representing one of these elements. We talk often here about the Hogwarts Trio, of course, with Hermione (the mind/will), Ron (the body), and Harry (the heart/soul), but the same structure can be seen in many other highly effective narratives: Princess Leia (mind/will), Han Solo (the body), Luke Skywalker (the heart/soul); Mister Spock (the mind/will), Doctor McCoy (the body), Captain Kirk (the heart/soul); Katniss Everdeen (the mind/will), Haymitch Abernathy (the body), Peeta Mellark (the heart/ soul). And those are just a few examples.
Encanto does a beautiful job with not one, but three groups of soul triptychs within an entire family that is also actually a triptych, with the primary generation, Abuela, representing the will. Her crushing grief at the loss of her husband exploded into a magical transformation that created the house and its magical world, and she now tries to hold it all together, to will her family to be well, to will the magic to stay strong, to fight off her fear of losing again. The second generation represents the body, as it includes the only Madrigals who live with their spouses and it includes Julieta (more in a moment). The third generation, the cousins, brings in the soul element, not only because it includes Maribel, but because the ongoing love that these children represent.
Abuela’s children, who are not just three but even triplets, are a very clear triptych. Julieta has the gift of being able to make food that heals people. She can hand an empanada to someone with a broken limb and make the injury heal completely (plus, there’s an empanada!). She obviously represents the body with this gift, a handy one since her husband seems to often get into bees, requiring not an EpiPen, but some home cooking. Pepa controls the weather with her moods, which are fortunately usually sunny (hence her sunshine earrings). When she needs to calm down, she uses upbeat self-talk about clear, sunny skies to improve her mood and the forecast. When she gets upset, though, a literal cloud appears over her head. She clearly represents the will, or the mind, since her thoughts will reality to conform to her feelings. The mysterious Bruno, who disappeared after making an upsetting prediction using his gift of prognostication, is actually the soul of the story in many ways, as the family cannot be made whole without bringing him back into it.
Pepa and her husband Felix have three children: Dolores, Camilo, and Antonio. Camilo, a constant comedian, can shapeshift to take on the bodies of others (a big help when two tall people are needed, and only one is available), so he is the body figure. Dolores, who can hear full conversations miles away, is a will figure, suppressing her true desires to serve the good of the family, but she actually trades places with her younger brother, taking on the role of the heart, when she is able to connect with her true love at the story’s end. Little Antonio starts as our heart figure, as his sweet demeanor and love for Mirabel are clearly portrayed. He gains great confidence with his gift, understanding and speaking to animals, and that is also a mind element, allowing Dolores and her successful romance to take over the heart slot.
Our protagonist and her sisters are an obvious triptych. Older sister Luisa is one of my favorite Disney characters in a while, because she is super strong and large, but still feminine. She also has an amazing song, “Surface Pressure,” that is the adult woman’s counterpoint to Elsa’s signature “Let it Go” that is so empowering for younger women. Luisa, because she is so strong, feels constant pressure to hold everyone and everything together and lives in fear that she might break and let down everyone she loves. The big girl doesn’t always get a song, let alone one that speaks such truth. She’s definitely our body figure. The lovely “golden child” Isabela, who is gorgeous and makes flowers grow everywhere, is the will, using her charisma to get what she wants, even an engagement to a man who does not much interest her simply because it means winning. Once she accepts that she does not have to be perfect, that she and her plant creations can be wild and untrammeled, not just pretty and perfect, she can truly e herself and have a good relationship with Maribel, who is definitely the heart and soul, not just of her sibling triptych, but of the whole family. Interestingly, although, one could make the case that Isabela, by being beautiful, is the body figure, and Luisa, with her strong will to match her strong back, serves as the will, there is no question that Maribel is the heart.
If you’ve seen Encanto, I hope you’ll join us for some conversation about how this lovely film fits in with our conversation here. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check it out. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs are fabulous, of course. It also gave me my favorite movie line of 2022 so far: “And that’s why coffee is for grown-ups.” But more than that, it is a truly magical story about families and healing, with some great literary power worked in there, in threes.