Under the Surface
Posted on January 25, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 21 Comments
I mentioned on Twitter today that this song from Encanto makes me tear up, not because I see myself in it but because I see any number of women I know in it — specifically, the hyper-competent women who do what’s necessary for their family and community, and do it so well that it’s easy not to ask them how it affects them to take on so much of the responsibility for the well-being of their tribe. Hey, if they’re not complaining then they’re doing all right, right? And, well, no. Maybe they’re not. Luisa gets to say their quiet part out loud in her song.
As I also noted elsewhere, this particular animated segment does a really excellent job of portraying the complexity of Luisa’s relationship to her role, both admitting to and simultaneously subsuming her fears and anxiety, while Mirabel, who up to this point has taken her sister’s strength for granted, sees what she’s missed before. There’s a lot going on.
Watching the video of this song prompted me (among other things) to check in with some of the hyper-competent women I know to make sure they’re aware of how much I value them and don’t take them for granted, and also, to see if I can do anything for them to lighten their load. If you know a hyper-competent woman (and I’m sure you probably do), take a moment to check in with them and see what you can do for them, for a change. I’m reasonably sure they will appreciate you doing that.
It’s like the “mom during COVID” anthem.
First 95% of movie be like: here are some very real problems that real people struggle with in the real world. Last 5% of movie be like: Ohp, all better now.
Thank you for this. I’m going to share it with my wife and remind her how much I appreciate her.
Thank you for this. Your earnestness made me tear up. I know allies are everywhere, but they are also rare.
On Twitter last year, a (woman) scientist at a national convention mentioned how a (male) fellow attendee had insisted that she ought not to be the one taking meeting notes by default–and I thought how it seemed so much like something a kind colleague I knew would do. I didn’t realize at the time that it actually was the very colleague it had reminded me of–and it reinforced the idea that true allies are indeed rare. https://www.msnbc.com/know-your-value/man-volunteered-take-notes-during-conference-it-went-viral-twitter-n1277322
… I feel worthless if I can’t be of service… Count me as one of those who cried listening to the song. (Also, really appreciate the Fall -ter line– fantastic word-smithing.)
I haven’t watched the movie yet (soon it will be out on dvd, thus available to us), but from the clips and discussions I’ve seen I’m fairly sure that a big hunk of the movie critics responsible for the less than perfect rotten tomatoes rating missed a ton. There is just so much going on, from the amazing acting with the facial expressions (I hope the animators get an award) to the words in the songs to the things going on in the background to how hard so much of the movie hits in so many communities. And it makes people feel but also think and keep thinking.
There’s a youtuber named Nicque Marina who has these amazing little clips reacting to the movie (my favorite are the Dolores listening to Rat Telenovelas … can’t say more, spoilers) that really bring out a lot of the depth from this movie.
Thank you for noticing, John, and for offering to take on more of the load for the women around you. And for cheerfully, publicly doing your part about getting vaccinated and following mask and travel guidelines to protect yourself and the public when you do go out in public.
I’m one of those hyper-competent women who’s been helping and herding my cats, family, neighbors, and friends through the pandemic, while simultaneously trying to maintain as much normality as possible. I’m also the oldest sister in a large family, so I totally get what Louisa is singing about. Happily, I can also say that I asked for, and got “a rest” for self care and pleasure last spring, in the form of a week-long health resort stay accompanied by a good friend. I could afford to do that in large part because our (now adult) kids didn’t need financial help from their parents aside from the “live here free in exchange for chores and studying” help we were already providing.
Wow, I‘ve never had a cartoon character hold hold up a mirror to my face before. I don’t really even know do or say. The last 25 years of my life was just explained in a song.
Damn you, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Now that the young are out of the house the pressures are a little less–and I’ve actually learned to say No on occasion. But still.
Great post as usual John. I teared up watching it because that’s me, being seen. Has anyone mentioned the fact that lifting donkeys and carrying them around is a monumentally needless task? They’re… ambulatory quadrupeds. It’s a hilarious symbol of the mountain of tasks that women are unnecessarily shouldered with. Women: put down your donkeys!
It’s a beautiful movie in so many ways.
nicoleandmaggie: “critics responsible for the less than perfect rotten tomatoes rating missed a ton.”
The movie does a great job of showing the stress that people are under. And it explains that this pressure comes from the family matriarch who has put herself and her entire family under this extrene pressure.
And when the protag shows the matriarch what she is doing, her response is oh, i should stop. Cut to a happy family rebuilding their home. The end.
In the three act play, act 1 shows the problem. Act 2 shows the protag trying to overcome the problem and fail. Act 3 has the protag grow and develop the skills needed to overcome the problem, and try again and suceed or fail.
Encanto shows the problem, but the problem is not the protagonist, its the family matriarch who is an npc most of the movie, and the problem is she expects her entire family to sacrifice themselves for others.
The matriarch doesnt becone aware of the problem until maybe 5 minutes before the movie ends. Thats act 1. There is no act 2, she never tries to change and fail. It just skils to act 3. She succeeds.
The story from the protagonist pov starts with “i dont belong. Where do i fit in”. Her act 2 is trying to go along with the sacrifice attitude the rest of the family does, and fails to find her place. And act 3 she finds Bruno eho nobody talks about, sees the damage the family is feeling from the pressure, and eventually confronts the matriarch.
Her 3 act play is muddled.
The protagonist is more of an observer to the forces affecting the family. The matriarch would have been a better protag. Or another family member who had powers, succumbed to the pressure, and eventually said ‘enough’.
The songs, such as the one shown above, are great windows into character snapshots. But it isnt plot and it isnt viewpoint and it isnt character development.
The movie has great personal insights into its characters. But the viewpoint character probably wasnt the best one to choose. And the resolution to the main problem, an over bearing matriarch, isnt developed, it just happens.
I dunno I still think that those critics need to look more under the surface, so to speak. Check out Nicque Marina on YouTube and her comments section. They discuss all the things you’re saying but find more depth than what you saw. Maybe it takes multiple viewings. And yeah it’s a Disney movie for kids—though the comments also compare and contrast to inside out and it’s ending and culturally different responses to it based on how you were brought up.
You can also see the scene they purposefully cut online somewhere that has the abuela coming to terms (voice acting and rough sketch) and some conversation about why they chose to cut it.
But I think we’re allowed a little magic when it comes to HEA in children’s movies. What we wish to be rather than what is. Because abusive people usually don’t change. Comments on one of the Nicque Marina videos suggest the true miracle (Mirabel) is abuela ever apologizing. I’m good with that. And the number of people who have said they cried at the ending—obviously it’s touching someone.
I saw an article on Paste Magazine the other day pointing out that the villagers don’t do anything because the family is around to do it, and in real life most people would round up their own damn donkeys.
“Surface Pressure” is a very good song. A lot of people are only valued for their “service” and they don’t exist without serving others. My mom’s always been that type, though forced retirement for 2 years (she just went back to work) hasn’t been as bad as I would have expected for her, somehow.
“Waiting On A Miracle” is the one that makes me cry though.
Yeah, it’s a great movie.
It’s also proof that Disney’s marketing team can be really off sometimes. They assumed that Mirabel was going to be the most popular character from this film…but from my experience, Luisa is the one little girls like the most.
Nicoleandmaggie: I LOVED “Inside Out”.
One of the reasons is because they showed the main character under the same pressure to conform, but earning her ending. Her parents keep reinforcing the idea that she is good because she doesnt give them problems, but that makes her bury her true feelings and hide how she is feeling from her parents.
She starts showing real effects of that pressure: lashing out, pulling inward, stealing, running away. But then she stops herself. She gets off the bus and goes back home. And she stops hiding her feelings from her parents. Its ugly and messy and so real that it works. And luckily she has disney parents who see their contribution to the problem and they change their behavior too.
Also, the scene where bing bong chooses being forgotten to save riley makes me weep like a baby.
Encanto has the problem that it has an abusive parent. The matriarch of the family sees the magic she received as an effect of the sacrifice her husband made when they were being pursued by bad guys. So she assumes she has to keep sacrificing to keep the magic. And she passes this on to her entire family.
At the end, she talks about how she ended up that way, but its more about the protagonist understanding the matriarch than it is about the matriarch seeing that her behavior was the cause of all the damage the family suffered, and begging forgiveness of everyone.
The “inside out” parents end hugging Riley, and apologizing for not seeing her and putting pressure on her to eat her feelings.
The Encanto matriarch didnt really do that. The big scene with her realization was a flashback of the cause of her original pain, not the current effects of the damage she caused.
The flashback scene left the protagonist with looking at the matriarch and saying, “oh you have suffered”.
Instead, the scene should have been the matriarch seeing, truly seeing, the pain everyone is suffering right now because of her insistence on everyone sacrificing. And then she would have earned her family back.
Or if she didnt, her children would have needed to break the cycle themselves.
I’ve seen this movie maybe seven times and counting, once in the theaters and six with my daughter who has had it on repeat. It’s an awesome movie, possibly my favorite Disney movie. I certainly hear the criticisms of the plot structure, but to me it was a movie about family, about figuring out your role in it, and recovering from intergenerational trauma. I cry every single time she comes to realize where the grandmother is coming from. I love that they have songs where the strong one talks about her insecurities, the pretty one talks about how stifling that is, the misfit talks about feeling like she doesn’t belong, etc. I love that musically it doesn’t feel as broadway-ey, and the infusion of columbian flavors into the music. Most disney movies before this were solved by two characters falling in love, so i didn’t mind that the resolution happened so quickly. i also appreciated it’s relative brevity, and the animation is gorgeous.
Re-reading Old Man’s War series, I just noticed a possible mistake in Zoe’s Tale: when they’re talking about the possible combinations of teenage boy fights on the Magellan, Gretchen says 10 groups would have 100 possible combinations and Zoe counters that without the Mennonites it would only be 9 groups, so 81 combinations. But groups wouldn’t fight with themselves, and A fighting B is the same as B fighting A, so it would actually be 45 combinations for 10 groups, or 36 for 9. Could be the characters’ mistake of course, but that undercuts the apparent intention, portraying them as clever. (Having them work out the correct math on the spot wouldn’t be really realistic either though.)
Loving the series in general btw. I’d read the first three books the first time through, and just re-read them to get back into it before continuing. Really enjoying Zoe’s perspective. As a father myself there have definitely been some emotional moments in there!
For me, the third act absolutely worked because Encanto didn’t feel like it was about Mirabel so much as its about the Madrigal family as a whole coming to terms with the generational trauma of being refugees. Mirabel spends the entire movie coming into her own as the new matriarch. She repeatedly learns how the fear of displacement – learned from Alma – is experienced by different members of her family and spends time learning how to support them and advocate for her family. We see those changes consistently throughout the film. The family dynamic changes not just because of Mirabel but because of the changes Luisa, Marisol, and Bruno undergo. By the end of the movie, Bruno has returned and both Luisa and Marisol have essentially rejected their current roles in the family (albeit in different ways). When Alma realizes that what was her way of doing things isn’t working, it is after the foundation of her family has literally crumbled.
Alma is flawed but consistently acts from a place of both love and trauma throughout the film. In the third act she learns both that she is hurting others and that she is safe. It feels like an authentic character beat to me, both for Alma and the family at large. That is particularly true because the family changes both because of Alma and because of Mirabel. Alma grows at the end of the movie, sure, but also the next generation is taking control. The front door at the end of the movie is – depending on interpretation – either shared or entirely Mirabel’s. As the pain and trauma of the past is processed and new generations grow up less impacted by it, things improve for the Madrigals. That is only possible because Mirabel has spent the whole movie giving her family space: Antonio space to be afraid, Luisa space to be weak, Marisol space to be herself, Bruno space to come home, and Alma space to be wrong.
Families absolutely are capable of changing and recovering over time and the way it happened in Encanto made sense to me. Was the timeline accelerated from what it would be in real life? Of course. But that kind of emotional acceleration is pretty standard for both Disney films and musicals generally. It feels more like a hallmark of genre than a fundamental flaw.
Nice song. From which I wonder: If Mirabel (with the glasses) was in that grey area between feeling responsible to help and lacking the emotional/developmental ability to help, then she might end up feeling guilty for years to come.
In my life, unless I am willing to “lean in” to help an individual to help, I won’t overtly expect that individual to help.
Thanks for summing up how I feel about the movie so eloquently!