Under the Surface, an Oncologist's Reflection on the Movie Encanto

Jennifer L. Lycette, MD


January 11, 2022

(Warning: This blog contains minor spoilers for the Disney movie Encanto )

There I was. In a movie theater for the first time in almost 2 years. The occasion: to celebrate my youngest child attaining full vaccine immunity (2 weeks out from the second Pfizer vaccine).

We wore our N95 masks and skipped the popcorn. One of the benefits of living in a small town and going on a weekday afternoon was that only two other people were in attendance — plenty of space for physical distancing.

The movie: Disney's Encanto.

I settled in next to my son to enjoy what I expected to be a lighthearted children's movie. I had purposefully not read anything about the film before going in, wanting to maximize our first back-to-the-movies experience since the pandemic started.

So I was not prepared to be fighting back the tears by the third song in.

The movie's premise, according to Disney, is "the tale of an extraordinary family, the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift from super strength to the power to heal — every child except one, Mirabel."

One of Mirabel's sisters, Luisa, was given the gift of super strength. She's the one who the entire town goes to for all their heavy lifting. But we soon learn that there's more going on beneath the surface for her.

In the song "Surface Pressure" (all of the songs are by Lin-Manuel Miranda), Luisa sings of the difficulties of being the one to (quite literally) shoulder all the heavy burdens of the town, from lifting furniture to donkeys. She sings of wondering who she would be if she could no longer bear the burdens asked of her. What would happen if she ran out of strength? Does anyone even value her aside from her brawn? Does anyone notice the incredible feats she pulls off? Does anyone even care how hard it is to keep doing it day after day? And how much it costs her?

Sometimes, she confesses to Mirabel, she cries.

But she doesn't think she has a choice. Her role has been defined for her. It's an indispensable role — to help her family and her town — but more than that, it defines her worth.

My jaw dropped behind my N95.

It's about healthcare workers, I thought. Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing about healthcare workers.

Now, I don't know if this is true. But I can't get the song out of my head.

Under the surface

I think about my purpose

Can I somehow preserve this?

I better not quote any more lyrics here (or I might get sued by Disney and Lin-Manuel), but I think "Surface Pressure" could become the healthcare worker pandemic theme song.

Luisa's subplot made an enjoyable movie experience with my son even more special. I won't give any more spoilers, but I would highly recommend the movie for anyone in medicine with kids — or without.

The only disappointment was that Disney released this exclusively in theaters starting before children under 12 could be fully vaccinated (and children under 5 are not yet at all). I hope it sticks around in theaters long enough for anyone who wants to — and is able to — enjoy it safely is able. (And it will be streaming on Disney+ later this month.)

Going out to the movies with my son reminded me of the value of art and entertainment in our lives, something that's been missing a lot during this pandemic. Like Luisa, we can learn that it's okay to take a break from our burdens. We are more than bodies who accomplish tasks. We are wholehearted people who need connection.

And sometimes, we cry.

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube

About Dr Jennifer Lycette
Jennifer L. Lycette, MD, is a rural community hematologist-oncologist, mom of three, and recovering perfectionist who's writing her way back from physician burnout, one word at a time. Her essays have been published in The Intima, The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, JAMA Oncology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, The ASCO Post, and more. Connect with her on Twitter @JL_Lycette or her website.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.