Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto is an animated musical that celebrates Lantine and Latinx culture, specifically everything Colombia offers. The film follows Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), the only child not blessed with a magical gift. As she struggles to find her place within her multigenerational enchanted family, she finds out that the magic that has helped them and the town is in danger of disappearing. So she sets off on an adventure to prevent that from happening.
Disney’s award-winning directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard teamed up to helm Encanto. Though two bring a wealth of animation directing experience to help tell a story about family and individuality, they would need someone who could authentically bring in those cultural nuances that come with a film set hidden in the mountains of Latin America. So Charise Castro-Smith, a Cuban American, was brought in to help them on the script and serve as a co-director. Together, along with the help of the Colombian Story Trust, they would put together a film that stayed true to the spirit of the country and culture.
Howard described the research trips to Colombia as an incredible experience. And to have their songwriter, Lin-Manuel Miranda, with them on that journey proved to be invaluable. But forging that connection to the people and the culture opened his eyes to what the film could be.
“I think we were learning about Colombia, as we were there from people who we love and the people who are of Colombian heritage. We’re sharing their families and that warmth, and just the diversity of families and music. Columbia is this crossroads of culture of dance, of food of tradition. So it just was an incredible moment for us.
We’re in huge cities like Bogota and Cartagena, all of which have a different vibe. And we love the people from these different areas and celebrate those specifics of their personalities. And we looked in any way we could to try to get that into the family.
I think we came back really, really charged up to get as much of Colombia into this film as we possibly could. But it was incredible.”
These research trips can act as a spark of inspiration to help give the story more form and more authenticity to the cultures represented in the feature film. But it also can come from within. For example. Miranda brought dad along the same research trip, and his stories about his own family would prove to be invaluable as it helped form one of the key characters of Encanto.
“I remember him telling us a story about his grandmother in Puerto Rico. She had lots of kids and those kids married, and they all stayed under the same roof. And she ruled with such certainty that people would bring their paychecks to her, and she would reallocate the wealth amongst the kids and the married couples and her children and grandchildren. And that is the kind of rule that ended up informing Abuela Alma who really loves her family dearly but holds it super tight.”
Considering Encanto centers on the magical Madrigal family, there needed to be something about the magic that would set it apart from the European wizards, wands, and spells. In Encanto, the magic is tied to something tangible and emotional. And the butterfly imagery spread throughout the film acted as a visual metaphor for that idea. Smith says she was inspired by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera as she wrote the script with Bush.
And the magic isn’t just within the Madrigal family. It is also in the beautiful casita they live in.
“From very early on, Byron and Jared knew that this house was going to be magical and alive and joyful. And we wanted it to really reflect the family that lived in it. And as we were trying to crack the character of this house, what was going to be, how was going to act, we really landed on the metaphor of this house behaving like the family dog. It has favorites. It has different relationships with each person in the family. It has a communal kind of beloved family member loved by everyone.
And it’s also sort of a metric for how the family is doing ultimately throughout the movie. So it is one of the most joyful and cool parts of this movie, and the animation team did just an incredible job with it.”
With such a large casita acting as the film version of a Disney castle, there needed to be a multigenerational family to live in it. And that was one of the biggest challenges that Bush needed to overcome for Encanto.
“So, for this movie, from the beginning, we knew we had to make that a priority. And we also know, okay, well, we’re going to have 12 members of the family, they have to separate who these people are going to be. So, early on, all of our research was really our own families. We found these archetypes, whether it’s, you know, like the black sheep of the family, or the golden child, or the responsible one, or the mom who heals with their food. All of these things felt very familiar to us. And very relatable, not just apply universally around the world, we found these archetypes.
Charise and I had to build the story to work as if there were no magic in it. So, we couldn’t say it’s all magic all the time. And we had to feel like this is a family story that functions and that we can relate to whether or not there’s magic. And then we also have to really love magic. And so that was a really fun part of saying, okay, the responsible, strong one, he can lift anything. Here’s a guy, he’s kind of nervous, and he’s sort of like, always worried then he’s the guy who can see the future. He’s always worried about what’s about to happen. Or Isabella, who’s the golden child, where flowers literally spring up in her footsteps. So I think what we really tried to do was take these very relatable, familiar dynamics and then just plus them and make them magical.”
Encanto‘s Latin American representation and Colombian cultural specificities can be found throughout the film, and even in the title itself. And for Yvett Merino, it was important that representation would also be reflected in the title.
“So Encanto, the literal translation is charmed, like a charmed place. Early on in the research, Byron and Jared talked about these places that they were able to go to in Colombia. They are all over Latin America. These places are considered spiritual and special. And just like magic that lives there. And so, really, and some people refer to these places as Encantos. When Byron and Jared heard that, they were like, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ you know. They love the word. They knew the land and that this community was built on spiritual land and that’s where the miracle came from.”
With films like Princess and The Frog, Moana, and Raya and The Last Dragon celebrating everything that diversity and representation have to offer, producer and Walt Disney Animation Studios president Clark Spencer believes that these stories are the future for the studio.
“If you think about the fact that Encanto is our 60th, six-zero, animated film, starting with Snow White back in 1937, it’s pretty incredible to think, how do you reflect upon that, right? It has one foot in our history and one foot in the future. It has this incredible music within it. The songs and songs have always been iconic to our films. And the gift that Lin [-Manuel Miranda] brought to this film is just absolutely incredible.
It has these beautiful visuals, it has heart, it has emotion, it has comedy, it has wonder, and it has magic. These things that have always existed. But when you watch the film, you also see where we’ve gone as a studio.”
Spencer then reflected on how Encanto is one of the studios’ most complex stories, considering how many characters it has to follow and balancing that out with telling a story within a beautiful landscape.
“I think this is the visually most complex movie we’ve ever made. It is just incredible what is actually on the screen. To Jared’s point, there are 12 characters that we’re tracking. So between Jared and Charise and Lin, they can say how do we make the audience understand who each of these 12 characters are in go on this journey with Mirabel and have you root for her the whole way.”
I mean, that’s not an easy task in any way shape, or form. The music is both, to Lin’s point, sort this incredible folk song. Then you have a song that is a reggaeton with ‘Surface Pressure.’ So you have everything in this film that’s from sampling. So that’s really what excites me so much about this film. It’s just been incredible to see it come together and so incredibly proud of this team and all the people who worked on it or at our studio who just poured their heart and soul into it.”
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto opens in theaters on November 24, 2021.