written by David Steffen
Encanto has been very popular since it was released by Disney in November 2021, for its catchy toe-tapping songs, interesting characters, and its themes revolving around immigrant families.
Everyone seems to think of Mirabel as the protagonist of the story, and that makes sense according to most classical conventions, but the more I’ve thought about it, I think there is someone else. Someone whose fate is tied to every major plot point in the story, from the origins of this segment of the Madrigal family, to the climax of the movie, and the denouement.
Is Casita an artificial intelligence? Casita is built and is able to make decisions and take actions, and appears to operate by certain implicit directives to protect the family, participate in family activities (such decorating for Antonio’s door ceremony), as well as maintaining the structure of the house and rebuilding sections as per the family’s needs.
Let’s say that Casita is an AI. The cause of Casita’s birth is a little murky. The inciting incident certainly seems to have young Abuelo’s death and Abuela’s despair at witnessing this and fearing for herself and triplets, but how exactly that resulted in the miracle of the candle and the creation of Casita is left to interpretation. The implication seems to be that it was a miracle from God. But, though the movie does not suggest this, it could have come from some other source that somehow provided this guardian AI: an extradimensional force that saw fit to intervene to save a group of refugees from imminent violence (hey, I have certainly seen much weirder things in comic books), reaching across the void to bestow a gift, a dedicated protector.
Whatever the source, the wish in Abuela’s heart in that moment seems to have become Casita’s primary objective: KEEP US SAFE, which has since determined all of Casita’s actions. How would the rest of it all work if Casita is an AI? Everything beyond that can be explained with something like nanotechnology guided by Casita’s objective.
Casita’s technology is used to isolate and enhance the enclave. You can think of it sort of like a generation ship AI that doesn’t happen to travel anywhere, meant to help this community not only persist, but thrive in complete isolation from the rest of the world. The Madrigal family are in a sense the officers of the ship, meant to be authority figures and inspiration for everyone around them, who consider service to the community part of their leadership. Casita’s door ceremonies happen when Casita forms a symbiosis with one of the family as they come of age, infusing nanotech into their body with a specific module designed by Casita to serve Casita’s overall goal to KEEP US SAFE.
The door ceremonies are held at an age where a child has learned to speak and learn some self-control, but when they are still young enough that they have a great deal of physical and mental development left, when they still have the extreme brain plasticity of youth. Abuela is the exception to this, of course, having been joined by Casita as an adult, but note that she also does not seem to have the same kind of active control of her ability as the others, perhaps due to her being older when she formed the symbiosis with Casita. The door ceremony transforms the person into an avatar of Casita, extending Casita’s influence and abilities accordingly. Although the person still has conscious control of their bodies and abilities, Casita’s touch is always with them from then on and Casita learns from it. Each of their private rooms behind their doors could be seen as sort of a training holodeck tuned to their specific powers.
In terms of archetypes that Casita fulfills, I feel like most people think of Casita mostly as a domestic helper who is auxilliary to the main story, sort of a Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons. But I think there’s reason to consider that Casita may be more like the mentor and guide who guides the party on their journey and acts as a protecting force and prepares them for the inevitable dangers. More on that later.
Apart from Casita’s symbiosis with each Madrigal, Casita’s abilities seem to be limited to moving parts of the house itself. We never see the house moved from its customary location, nor extend itself. So it appears that Casita’s ability to KEEP US SAFE, apart from direct actions possible by house parts within the boundaries of the house, is largely dependent on Casita’s symbiosis with each of the Madrigals.
Abuela’s abilities are immediately visible upon Casita’s birth, in the immediate repulsion of the attacking soldiers, and in the raising of the mountains. I admit that raising mountains might seem like a stretch for nanotech, but perhaps they only have the appearance of mountains and are perhaps a thinner (yet extremely durable) barrier. I doubt a regular mountain would deter determined humans anyway, so it stands to reason it’s more like a force field with a mountain veneer on it. A sensible choice for the first symbiosis powers, to push away the immediate violent threat.
When the triplets come of age, their abilities all expand to meet the immediate survival needs of the community, especially since they need to survive without contact with the outside world; they can’t depend on trade with other cities for supplies or skilled trades.
- Julieta’s healing protects the community from injury and illness, clear utility there. Short-lived but powerful repair swarms contained in the food.
- Pepa’s weather control protects from deadly weather (imperfectly, perhaps, but despite the unpredictability we do not hear of anyone dying of weather), and also helps protect from famine–a major factor of survival in a town like this would be the ability to farm their own food. Probably one of the harder ones to implement, with cloud-seeding and humidity control.
- Bruno’s predictions make an excellent way to anticipate problems that would otherwise not be foreseen. So, two avatars who can help keep the community healthy right now, and a third to try to anticipate coming dangers. Advanced behavior modeling and prediction based on Casita’s larger body of collected data.
What about the grandkid avatars? Consider them by approximate age as Casita progresses in the mission to KEEP US SAFE.
- Luisa’s strength is of clear utility: we see her helping the community in many ways: gathering donkeys, moving churches, she could reroute rivers, easily snap trees for lumber, flattening land to build structures. She could serve as a warrior in time a time of dire need, though Casita would want to prevent that if at all possible. Nanobots could implement this by altering the structure of her muscles, could replace the muscle fibers with carbon fibers, local toughening of skin to avoid injury.
- Isabella can grow plants at will, which is an accelerated improvement on food control after Pepa’s more indirect one. The fact that we don’t see Isabella widely using her gift to produce food for the village suggests that the village is prospering well enough that this is not necessary. And Isabella also is well-beloved in the community, sort of a poster child for the Madrigals, perhaps in part because of her gift of bringing beauty to the town. Are the plants real plants or are they nanobot constructs? Do we see anyone eating them at any point?
- Dolores is Casita’s remote sensing avatar, extending Casita’s senses far beyond the boundaries of the house. Useful for all kinds of things: conflict resolution, matchmaking which can be used to improve the morale of the town, sensing approaching danger long before it becomes dangerous. This ability also may synergize with Bruno’s predictions, because Casita would have a much much more complete body of data about the townspeople, knowing details about their private lives. After Bruno’s disappearance, it also allows Casita some ability to sense into Bruno’s abandoned tower room that Casita has no direct control over (as Dolores “associates him with the sound of falling sand”). As the years went on and Abuela’s treatment of family members to try to keep them safe contribute to alienation, Casita would predict the future where Casita crumbles as the family dynamic falls with it. But, as many AIs, Casita struggles to fully understand human psychology and human behavior (if this stationary generation ship has Abuela is Captain Picard, there is no Counselor Troi!), and so Casita’s greatest challenge is to understand humans well enough to try to prevent or fix the problem that stems from human psychology. Gather more data about human behavior is a sensible way to approach the problem. Dolores’s hearing could be implemented by alteration of Dolores’s eardrums, as well as farther-reaching methods more like sensor-seeding across the whole town as her hearing seems to reach farther than soundwaves could plausibly travel.
- Camilo, now Camilo is a tougher one to pinpoint the utility of his gift to the central mission to KEEP US SAFE. While, yes, Camilo’s shapeshifting could have some utility in hostile situations (ala Mystique from X-Men). Again, as with Dolores, Casita is struggling to understand and solve the problem of the growing psychological problems in the Madrigal family. Casita is purely rational, but humans are not, and it is difficult for Casita to understand thinking but only-sometimes-rational beings. Casita’s ability to communicate is very limited–apart from taking direct necessary action, Casita sometimes communicates by some gestures that one might liken to emoji, but Casita is not capable of taking steps that we might do if we wanted to understand someone–by asking them questions that lead to other questions. Camilo seems to have few limits on his ability to imitate, and when guests arrive for Antonio’s door ceremony, he uses his ability readily by mimicking each guest as he greets them, which the guests seem to find great joy in. This brings to mind the behavior of “mirror neurons” which are a biological basis for empathy–allowing an observer to feel the same way when we see someone perform an action as when we perform the action ourselves. So, although Camilo’s ability doesn’t seem to have a direct usage in the survival of the community (apart from morale, as people do seem to enjoy his antics!), Casita learns from Camilo’s mimicry of the townspeople to better learn and understand about each person–Camilo could not imitate them so effectively if he didn’t understand them , so Casita grows in empathy from connecting with him. And through Camilo, Casita comes to understand that some of the rifts in the family come from people viewing the Madrigals primarily by their abilities (what makes them artificial) instead of what makes them human. Camilo’s abilities may be the most challenging of the Madrigal’s to produce on a practical level, his entire body changing in an instant. It’s possible that some of these changes are illusions, merely visible facades, when a physical change is not necessary, but given that height changes have an actual physical effect that can’t be all of it. It’s possible that Camilo’s entire body has been replaced with a plastic nanobot swarm, or everything except certain organs such as his digestive system and brain which shift around inside the rapidly changing body.
As Mirabel approaches the date of her door ceremony, Casita ponders what sort of symbiosis to form with her. To bring the family together, Casita needs someone with empathy. Mirabel shows potential for that, but how best to enhance it? Yet, in the times to come, Casita is grimly aware that Casita may be destroyed, and with Casita’s destruction the avatars’ abilities will disappear. Casita needs to plan for this as well. She needs someone who can bring the family together even without an avatar’s powers, because in the worst case those might disappear. So, Mirabel becomes the only Madrigal to pass the door ceremony age without becoming an avatar. It’s clear that Casita still cares for her as much as anyone else, Casita maintains a friendly rapport with Mirabel, and the feeling is mutual.
When Abuela asks Bruno to try to use his future-telling ability to find out why Mirabel didn’t get a door and a power, Casita is able to finally convey to him Casita’s greatest fear: the death of Casita. And in doing so, Casita is able to guide Bruno in his self-exile to live in the walls. Casita is depending on Mirabel to heal the rifts in the family and keep Casita together, but Mirabel is way too young at that point to be able to take on that kind of responsibility. So, Casita has to hold it together and Casita can’t do that without help, so Bruno serves a vital role in bridging that gap making his own spackle as he lives in the walls. (I imagine Bruno as Scotty of the generation ship, except that instead of messaging the bridge to say “I can’t hold it together much longer” instead he spends years applying emergency spackle and talking to the shipboard rats)
When Antonio comes of age, Casita knows that the time of the potential collapse is approaching, between Luisa’s growing anxiety pushing her to the breaking point and Isabella’s upcoming wedding of unrequited love. There is not very much time to make a difference with Antonio’s power, but some choice has to be made, and Casita can still try to make some small difference. One of Luisa’s jobs has been to help gather loose donkeys, and we get the impression this is not an uncommon task, especially considering how chill the donkeys are about being stacked. So, Antonio’s ability to speak to animals is an attempt by Casita to lighten Luisa’s load in at least some way–they may be able to send Antonio to go talk the donkeys back (whether donkeys could be convinced by Antonio remains to be seen!), a job which Antonio will be able to do with less effort than Luisa as he can bribe or otherwise convince animals to do what he asks. Casita might have considered giving Antonio strength like Luisa’s to help her more directly, but given that she is struggling with feeling her worth already, making her feel like she is being replaced would not have helped her self-doubt, which Casita would have realized after learning empathy from Camilo.
Casita predicted that on the day of Antonio’s door ceremony, Mirabel would step out of Antonio’s room to process this, finally giving a rare opportunity for Casita to communicate with Mirabel with no one else in the main part of the house. Casita doesn’t want to show the decay of the house’s structure to the family as a whole, for this will lead to panic, cause Luisa to spiral in anxiety, or Abuela to come down hard on family members. So Casita tries to communicate to Mirabel privately by relaxing control on the structure enough to let the decay show (like relaxing a muscle you have become accustomed to clenching at all times). Then when Mirabel goes to get the family, Casita pulls the structure together again as well as possible, knowing that Mirabel has the mystery to solve and with the hopes that Mirabel’s empathy will be enough to carry her through the rest.
One thing I admire about Casita is that, even when Casita’s collapse began, Casita still puts forth best efforts to the end to protect everyone, directing the collapse to provide aid, such as the railing-become-ladder when Mirabel was trying to reach the candle, and the makeshift triangle shelter of debris in the end that saved Mirabel’s life. It would have been a nightmare for Casita to know that the collapse of Casita’s body was itself the cause of Mirabel’s death, and Mirabel’s death would also have doomed Casita to not be rebuilt and reborn, meaning the failure of the mission to KEEP US SAFE.
In the end the AI is revived through the doorknob the avatars construct that Mirabel uses to transition that residual spark of life from the avatars to the body of the house, reviving Casita with a freshly built body, with a mind that may not be the mind of the original Casita but is a construct made of the avatar’s memories of Casita. And in that rebirth, we see the success of Casita plan to mend the breaks in the Madrigal family and continue to pursue the prime directive KEEP US SAFE.