How Colombian Culture, Music, and Dance Tell a Magical Story in ‘Encanto’

Making an animated film at Walt Disney Animation Studios is a tremendous undertaking. It takes years of development, not to mention countless rewrites to perfect the script, numerous in-house screenings, and so much more. Encanto, Disney’s 60th animated feature, brings music and dance together to tell the story of Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), a Colombian teenager facing the fact that she is the only one who doesn’t have any magical abilities in her family. But when she discovers that magic is in danger, she sets off on a journey to save it.

Directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro-Smith, Encanto features eight original songs written by their muse and ultimate Disney fan, Lin-Manuel Miranda. And like Raya and the Last Dragon and Moana, the film formed a cultural story trust comprised of experts and artists to help Encanto stay true to the spirit of Colombia. 

The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists to attend an early preview of Encanto. We learned about the formation of the cultural story trust, the musical influences, and the dances we will see in the animated film. We will also have more about the characters, the casita or cottage, and the costume designs. And there are interviews with the directors as well. 


6 – It’s All About Family

The image of the family may play specific roles in Disney films, but in Encanto, it will play a central theme. Directors Howard and Bush, and Miranda all have large extended families from various regions in America. According to Howard, their research led them to look at their extended families and the complex dynamics that came with it. From there, they decided to tell a story about a large family with many characters and imbue them with exciting personalities, dimensions, and unique qualities.

They narrowed down the questioning with “how well do we truly know our families? And how well do our families know us?” Bush looked to his family and their relationship with him and his sister’s relationship with them to help form the script. The dynamics between the two was not only an eye-opener for the co-director, but it was also the lightbulb they needed to help build the foundation necessary for the film.

“I started to see the choices that she had made in her life that were always confusing to me. I finally understood them because I finally had the right context,” he said. Using perspective and understanding as a foundation, the directors sought out using the movie as a means to portray that everyone around us is fighting their own battles, and those battles and those choices made every one of us who we are today.


5 – Finding Home

As Bush, Howard, and Miranda developed the story, they thought about the film’s setting. “We wanted to learn more about the place often described as the crossroads of Latin America, Colombia,” Howard said.

That’s when they referred to Juan Rendón and Natalie Osma. Bush and Howard were already acquainted with Rendon and Osma when they worked on a behind-the-scenes documentary of Zootopia. They would meet weekly basis, review early drafts of the script, and attending screenings.  According to Bush, Rendón and Osma described Colombia as “a melting pot of Latin culture, music, dance, art, and food with some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet and also home of magical realism.”

And just like Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, the creative team went on research trips and formed a cultural story trust. These were immensely helpful as they learned about areas of heightened spirituality and places of magic called “Encantos.”

The cultural story trust comprised experts and artists from all walks of life from music, anthropology, culture, architecture, botany, among many. Additionally, the artists also came from within Disney animation. “This was open to anyone in the studio who wanted to join. It was a group of artists and studio employees we call familia,” co-director and co-writer Charise Castro Smith said. “That became a great source of inspiration and learning.”

As a playwright and TV writer, Smith’s credits include Feathers and Teeth, as well as Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. While Bush and Howard met with over 20 writers, they saw how Smith’s work had humor, intention, and bursts of personality. It was also the fact that she was familiar with magical realism that would help them find the magic in Encanto.

ENCANTO – Concept Art by Lorelay Bové. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The magic in Encanto is not the typical European magic with wizards and wands.  Instead, it’s a kind of magic tied to emotion and part of a tradition called magical realism. “The language of magical realism just makes visceral sense to me. It’s woven into my imaginative DNA,” she said. “Growing up in Miami, a place where fact often felt Stranger Than Fiction, the tall tale version of a story often felt like the best way to capture the reality of a given event. It still does.”

4 – More Than Just a House

After Smith joined the team as a co-writer and co-director, they started to work with magical realism on top of mind. “When we infuse magical realism into our story of family and thought about those magical encantos, everything just came alive,” she said. “Because we realized that if the family in our story lived in one of those magical encantos, maybe the children born there would be special, but special in a way that is a nod to family dynamics that we can all relate to that we all know.”

Smith gave specific answers as to what that means, like the strong and dependable child who is the rock of the family. Or the perfect golden child whose happiness blossoms. Or the child who is quiet and uncomfortable talking to people but can easily communicate with animals.

But this is no ordinary house. Instead, it’s a magical one.  Like the ocean in Moana, Casa Madrigal is a sentient character. The enchanted home of the Madrigal family, located within the encanto along with a small neighboring town, is alive with magic and its own unique personality.

In the film, the Madrigal hours conjures a door whenever a child turns 5. Each door opens to an enchanted space that reveals their role in the family and how they’ll serve the community. These rooms are a fantastical realm that represents the personality and magical powers of the Madrigal who lives there. They played with the idea as a literal representation of the family and their emotional connections. If the family is happy, then the house is happy. But if the family is going through struggles, the house can crack.


3 – A Magical Multigenerational Household

There are three generations of the Madrigal family in Encanto. Artists and writers had the daunting task of giving 13 characters specific arcs and different costumes and hair designs. Unlike some other features that had contained stories with two or three characters going off on an adventure, Encanto has to track 13 characters. It is a level of complexity that they’ve never set off to do before.

Abuela Alma is the base of the Madrigal family tree. Voiced by María Cecilia Botero, Abuela Alma’s unwavering faith helped create the magical Encanto that her family calls home.

Moving towards the second generation, Abuela Alma had two daughters and a son. Julieta Madrigal (Angie Cepeda), Mirabel’s mother, uses her magical powers to heal through food. Agustín Madrigal (Wilder Valderrama), Mirabel’s father, is the perfect match for Julieta, considering how accident-prone he is. Still, he loves his family very much.

Pepa Madrigal (Carolina Gaitán), Mirabel’s “overly emotional” aunt, has the power to control the weather, but mood swings lead to unpredictable weather patterns. Her partying husband, Felix Madrigal (Mauro Castillo), who is out there to have a good time, helps balance Pepa out.


And then there’s Bruno (John Leguizamo), the black sheep of the family, whose visions of the future cause nothing but trouble for the Madrigals. No one ever talks about him, at least not in conversations. Miranda wrote a song dedicated to the character.

Finally, we have the youngest generation of Madrigals. First, there’s our lead character, Mirabel Madrigal. Voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, Mirabel may come off as a bit quirky, but the empathetic teenager of the family makes up for it with her upbeat attitude and kindness.

She has two older sisters, Luisa Madrigal (Jessica Darrow), the middle child. As the rock of the family, Luisa is magically endowed with superhuman strength and carries the physical and emotional burdens of the family.

Then there’s Isabella Madrigal (Diane Guerrero), the eldest and golden child of the family. Her magical gift is to make plants grow, and flowers bloom everywhere.

Dolores (singer-songwriter Adassa), Pepa and Felix’s daughter, and Mirabel’s cousin may be the quietest member of the Madrigal family. Still, she can hear everything, which means she has the dirt on everyone in the entire town.

Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz), Pepa and Felix’s son and Mirabel’s cousin, is a teenager who is still trying to figure himself out. As such, he has the power to shapeshift.

Finally, there’s Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers), the youngest member of the Madrigal family. Though extremely shy, he can communicate with animals. He is Mirabel’s cousin and considers her a big sister.

ENCANTO – Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda pictured in Walt Disney Animation Studios reference photo from Colombia research trip. Photo by Jared Bush. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

2 – The Music

As mentioned earlier, Lin-Manuel Miranda will write eight new original songs for Encanto. The Emmy, Grammy, Tony Pulitzer Prize-winning actor, singer-songwriter, producer, the playwright also wrote songs for Moana.

During their research trip to Colombia, the directors learned Colombian music is a mash-up of new and old and local and global. The music and songs will feel like the music you can hear on the radio today, like a reggaeton song. But, there will also be a folk song that sounds like it comes from 100 years ago. And each of the songs and musical stylings will fit the various members of the Madrigal family.

Also joining the music team is Germaine Franco, who will compose the film’s score. She was one of the songwriters on Disney/Pixar’s Coco. She also happens to be the first Latina invited to join the music branch of the motion picture Academy. And Mike Elizondo is the film’s music arranger. He’s worked with talents such as 50 Cent, Eminem, Fiona Apple, and Carrie Underwood.

1 – And the Dancing

To go along with the incredible musical numbers that we will see and hear in Encanto, there will also be fantastic dance sequences. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is one of Encanto’s biggest musical numbers, which visualizes Pepa breaking the rule of not talking about Bruno, and how his visions ruined her wedding day, not to mention the lives of the entire town.

To make sure the animation for dance number was authentic to Colombia, the animation team collaborated closely with choreographers, who got a firsthand look at some of it through storyboard form. Storyboards are a story team visualizing Bush and Smith’s script to get an idea of the size and scope of the sequence itself.

MOMENT IN TIME: ANIMATION PROGRESSION – Featuring songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto” introduces the family Madrigal, where every child is blessed with a magic gift unique to them. Everyone, that is, except Mirabel. In this animation progression showcasing a single shot from the original song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” filmmakers began with a storyboard in which artists sketched the first visual representation of the shot. Next, filmmakers called on skilled choreographers and live dancers to provide reference footage for the shot to inspire and inform the layout and animation pros. Thirdly, the layout team places fully modeled characters within the desired set to give animators and directors an idea of the shot’s composition. Finally, animators add the characters’ full performances to complete the shot, sending it down the pipeline where lighting artists work their magic to bring it all to life. Opening in the U.S. on Nov. 24, 2021, “Encanto” features the voices of Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel, and Adassa as her cousin Dolores. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Because previous collaborations with choreographers were for specific sequences with the camera work and layout already predetermined, the team needed to collaborate with choreographers during the early development process. They started by bringing Jamal Sims, whose credits include Aladdin (2019) and The Descendants 3, to do the choreography with Kai Martinez. 

What excited Martinez and the rest of the Latinx cast and crew about Encanto was that they could see themselves represented the characters and other colorful and vibrant aesthetics. “It just spoke to the child and all of us,” she said. “Once we heard the music, it sent us to whole other level, in the sense of just this incredible storytelling, the lyrics and the music, that Lin [Manuel-Miranda] and the musical team were able to create with not just this song, but every other song after this.”

As for the dances themselves, it had to come from their imaginations. In the real world, humans have a physical set with props that can be used for their dances. However, for Encanto, the challenge was choreographing and designing a dance with storyboards and character descriptions. “It really forced us to get into our heads and open our imaginations and kind of go wild with it,” Martinez said.

After Sims and Martinez did one pass at the choreography, the animation team roughly translated the physical movements onto the characters. Cinematographer Nathan Warner and his layout team would then go in and shoot it like a live-action film. Even though it was still a rough animation of the sequence, it was so powerful that it made the choreographers very emotional and very proud. “We realized that this is bigger than us, that this was something that we should be proud of, and that it was going to be something that would outlive us all,” she said.

After getting the layout of the dance number, the animation team headed back to the dance studio, where Jamal and Kai would reperform the dance number that we could shoot it from every single angle. Additionally, they did with skirts on and off to understand the leg movement and footwork.

Martinez didn’t know what she was getting herself into when first asked to consult on Encanto. But she was up to the challenge. And she discovered that the two worlds were very similar in its language and expressions. So it was an exciting moment for her because she was able to nerd out and talk about these characters and have them dance in a precise way.

“I give it up to the animation team because for me, I’m just moving and then to get into the heads of animators and how it’s very meticulous and every step that is made require so much work,” Martinez said. “For them to get it and get it on point, I mean, is a reason why they are who they are. My hat’s off to the whole animation team.” Their desire to learn and their efforts to make it as authentic as possible warmed her heart.

And it wasn’t so much that Martinez brought Colombia to the team, but it was how they saw her culture through her eyes and getting that personal touch on what was essential and what should be noticed.

Encanto opens in theaters on November 24, 2021.