In Disney’s latest blockbuster, Encanto, a magical family called the Madrigals have escaped the violence and chaos of their homeland by crossing a river into an enchanted paradise that endows each with wondrous gifts that they use to protect and enhance their community. As the generations go by, however, the magic of the new world starts to fade and the family buckles under the pressure of their responsibilities while struggling to maintain the illusion that everything is fine. One grandchild, we learn, has no gift at all; another worries that she cannot keep up the appearance of perfection that is crushing her from the inside out; while another, still, panics that she is losing her superhuman strength. Luisa, the strong one, sings out her fears:
Under the surface;
I hide my nerves and it worsens;
I worry something is gonna hurt us;
Under the surface
The ship doesn’t swerve as it heard how big the iceberg is;
Under the surface I think about my purpose;
Can I somehow preserve this?
Now, two years of pandemic parenting might be playing with my mind, but I think the writers of Encanto are trying to tell us something here. Having watched the new release (twice) with my little one recently—and then listened to its soundtrack on repeat ever since—the message seems fairly clear: America is broken (but don’t worry, all is not lost).
Encanto comes from the same team as Moana, the 2016 smash; the music in both was written by the Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. As you might expect from Disney, both movies are full of color and life and hope, and both are classically uplifting fables with all the flair and modernity of a Miranda musical. But it’s not just the music that rhymes in these movies—the message rhymes as well.
For those without children, let’s take a quick look at the plots of both movies. A brave band of people originally from somewhere else move to a new (and conveniently uninhabited) world. After a period of bliss, this new land is threatened by malign forces that turn out to be not from without, but from within. To avert disaster, a hero—or, rather, a heroine—is needed to restore the heart to the country, to rebuild its foundations.
Both movies are set outside the U.S. but couldn’t be more American if they were called “Buffalo Bill’s Manifest Destiny.” It’s not that the movies are somehow imperialist or culturally insensitive—though I am neither Colombian nor Polynesian so it is perhaps not my place to say. From here in London, each movie looks and sounds wonderful and about as authentic as an animation is probably able to be. Either way, the movies are inescapably American, based on American assumptions, American hopes, and American fears, and do a better job at revealing the country’s state of mind right now than any Ph.D. thesis or New York Times op-ed.
What’s more, both movies have a prophet, a figure who can see what’s coming but who, because of this, is cast aside, marginalized, canceled—no one wants to hear the bad thing. It is no coincidence, surely, that this theme of death foretold grips Hollywood’s wider imagination right now. It is, of course, the central message of Don’t Look Up and even of the remake of Dune released last year. In Encanto, the leitmotif—or recurring theme—used by Miranda to emphasize the point is the catchy one-liner “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Bruno is the brother who “lost his way” after seeing the future and disappeared.
And, yes, while clearly not everyone, or even perhaps a majority of people, in America share Miranda & Co.’s diagnosis of the national illness—or, for that matter, that of the writers of Don’t Look Up—the fact is that Hollywood movies like these remain important vectors of American culture, helping to promote a particular image of the country to the world while simultaneously helping to shape the country’s own imaginative sense of what it is.
Take Moana, a movie whose core message is that a voyaging people who have forgotten who they are need to rediscover their spirit of adventure in order to prosper. It is, in essence, a frontier saga, a kind of giddyap to the country to remember what made it great. (It was released in theaters the month that Donald Trump was elected president.) In Encanto, the people who have lost their way are not voyagers, but refugees. Still, as in Moana, they find a new homeland, “a place of wonder.” It’s not a complicated allegory.
Outside the U.S., would an Encanto or a Moana even have been made? A cultural context with the same hopes, fears, and assumptions is hard to imagine. Even here in Britain, where we like to think of ourselves (self-importantly) as the Greece to America’s Rome, I just can’t see it. Yes, many of us are just as taken as Americans are by the notion that our land is another Eden, a “fortress built by Nature for herself, against infection and the hand of war,” as Shakespeare put it. And, just like Americans do today, many of us see division at home as the threat to our peace: “England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself” and all that. Still, the narrative threads that help us to understand our world are different than those in the U.S. For all that the sun never set on the British empire, there is not really a British frontier like there is an American one. And if we are an immigrant nation, it is not in the same way that the United States is.
None of this is to criticize the message or the values or the plot (and certainly not the music) of Encanto and Moana, but merely to reflect on what the movies tell us about America today. Moana’s message when it arrived six years ago was hopeful, suggesting that redemption lies in a change of outlook, a rekindling of an original spirit that has been lost but not yet entirely forgotten, living on in those we just need to listen to. Moana’s world is not yet that of Don’t Look Up, in which America is too far gone to be saved.
The fear that something has been lost from the original American spirit is a theme that runs through the past few decades of American TV and cinema. In The Sopranos, which I also rewatched recently, the whole plot revolves around Tony’s sense of loss. In the first episode he demands to know where the old American man has gone, the strong and silent Gary Cooper type that defined his childhood. Tony’s anxiety about his powerlessness to stop his family and world from changing in front of his eyes leads to panic attacks and the start of his sessions with a psychiatrist.
In Encanto, the matriarch of the family is similarly scared that she is losing control. “If our family knew how vulnerable we truly are,” she says to herself at one point, “if our miracle is dying … We cannot lose our home again.” But she doesn't know how to maintain the (literal) magic of their casita. “Open my eyes,” she implores. “If the answer is here, help me find it. Help me protect our family. Help me save our miracle.”
Is the American miracle dying too? This, it seems to me, is the question that now dominates American public life. If the miracle is dying, why? And more than that: What even is the American miracle?
In The Sopranos, Tony believes that the miracle is dying because the country has become all soppy and weak, so much so that even mobsters like him are crying in front of their shrinks. In Moana, too, the crisis is a spiritual one, though obviously of a slightly different kind. The people of Motunui have forgotten what made them great, which was not quite the cowboy calm of Gary Cooper but was the kind of adventurous, voyaging spirit that the Wild West represented. The Madrigal family of Encanto, however, are suffering from something much deeper than a crisis of outlook. Encanto identifies the threat as structural. And in doing so, I think, it reflects the changes that have happened in the world over the past six years.
The beauty of kids’ movies, of course, is that self-indulgent arts-grad-type parents like me—just the kind of people Tony Soprano would loathe—can drift off into their own speculative theories about what the film really means while their children just enjoy it and the songs for what they are. When I watched Encanto, all I could think of (other than that it sounded exactly like Moana and Hamilton) was that it was a morality tale about a declining America in a brutal world. My son just thought Luisa was brilliant because she sang about Hercules.
Anyway, in my speculative mind, the challenge to the U.S. and the West today is, as Encanto suggests, more daunting than it was in 2016, when Moana was released, and surely requires more than a simple change in outlook to address. Simply being more brave and hopeful is not going to cut it. The problems facing the West are structural: China is a superpower and growing; Russia is resurgent and expansionist; the Middle East chaotic; and Europe resentful. It is far from clear that, together, the U.S. and Europe have the unity, will, and perhaps resources to maintain the status quo. In Beijing, Moscow, much of the Middle East, and even in Europe, there is a sense that the American world is coming to an end.
At home, as Encanto implies, the U.S. is divided and ill at ease with its responsibilities. From afar the country seems conflicted about the most basic of questions: Who is it, and what should its global role be? Is it committed to remaining hegemonic or not? Is it united enough at home to be so even if it wanted to be? Does it even accept the legitimacy of its own system of government, the source of its magic? With America itself beginning to doubt its own power, is it any wonder that the country’s allies and enemies are too?
In foreign-policy terms, Trump’s radicalism lay in his argument that American hegemony was not in America’s interest. In his view, those sheltering under American protection were simply taking advantage for their own gain—and often at America’s expense. Will this vision prevail? And if so, if America has given up trying to lead, to push at the frontier, what then will be its purpose? In Europe, despite the extraordinary consequences that such a shift might present, infighting also seems to be the order of the day. Those in the U.S. who feel down about the country's divisions should remember that if America is conflicted about who it is and what its purpose is meant to be, Europe, taken as a whole, is no better and perhaps has even deeper structural problems in its path than America does as it seeks to find a way to act with unity and purpose.
I won’t spoil the ending either to Encanto or to Moana (suffice to say both movies are great), but will instead leave you with Bruno’s message to his niece halfway through:
I saw the magic in danger.
Our house breaking.
And then, and then, and then, I saw you.
But the vision was different. It … it would change.
And there was no one answer. No clear fate.
The casita is threatened. The heart must be restored. But all is not lost, the future is not set. That’s the message. America has bounced back from worse, much worse—but it’s not just Miranda who is worried. More and more of the world sees the flame of America’s miracle flickering too.