Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto tells a story about family and individuality through the Latin American lens, specifically a Colombian one. The film follows the Madrigal family, where every child was blessed with a magical power that they are to use to help the family and better the community. Well, every child except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who has to face the frustration of being the only one without a blessing.
But when she discovers that the magic is in danger of disappearing, she takes it upon herself to go on an adventure to find out what is happening and save her family from losing their precious gifts.
For their latest animated musical, Disney brought their muse Lin-Manuel Miranda to write eight original songs. These songs not only play a pivotal role in the film’s storytelling, but they also act as a guide to help audiences track the Madrigal dynamics within the mystical and magical multi-generational casita.
The Nerds of Color had the chance to it in with their fellow journalists for the Encanto virtual press conference where Miranda talked about the songwriting process, what it was like to find rhymes in Spanish, and the legacy of the “I Want Song” in Disney animated musicals.
Writing eight songs for one film where the audience must keep track of a every member of the multi-generational family proved to be a challenge for everyone involved in the creative process. Which is why the film’s opening number was created so that it would be fun yet informative way to help the audience to get to know the characters. Not only that, but it also helped the creative teams during the production process.
A couple of things. One, I think that being there from the beginning really allowed for more of a given take than I’ve ever experienced on an animated film. You know, there were songs where I sort of put points on the board and was like, ‘Alright, here’s our opening number. Here’s how everyone’s related and what they can do. I wrote that opening number before, we had a second act or a third act to our film because we needed it for ourselves to keep track of everybody. And these names may change, and the powers may change. But we know the audience is going to need a guide. And Mirabel is going to be our guide. So let’s write that song early.
But then came “Dos Oruguitas,” a song that would be different from the other seven in terms of approach and storytelling.
Dos Oruguitas was really inspired by some of the visuals coming out of the incredible animation department, and I loved the way they embodied the miracle by having this flame from a candle turn into a butterfly turned into a cascade of butterflies.
And in approaching this moment, without spoilers, it’s a moment where we reveal a really kind of personal part of the magical family history. And it didn’t feel right to have a character sing in real-time, which is what all the other characters are doing over the course of the movie. And so, I thought, I think we need a folk song. I think we need a song that feels like it’s always existed
Miranda then revealed that he worked off the butterfly imagery because the transformative process of caterpillars cocooning themselves to become butterflies was a miracle in of itself. And it was that visual that would acts as a metaphor for the Madrigal’s legacy.
So, I wrote this song about two caterpillars who are in love and are scared of letting each other go, but of course, they have to let each other go to become their next selves. So, it was a nature metaphor that was already baked into the visuals of the film. But it speaks so specifically to what this family is going through in terms of trying to see each other more fully and in terms of you have to change to get to the next level, and you have to allow yourselves to change, and you know, and then Sebastián Yatra takes it to a whole other level with his beautiful vocal performance of the song, but it’s not harder to rhyme in Spanish.
I just have a much more limited vocab in Spanish. So I had to really reach for my thesaurus and outside my comfort zone to really try to write a song that feels like it’s always existed. That was the goal, and I hope we’ve achieved it..
While Miranda is an extremely talented songwriter with many accolades, who helped open the doors for other marginalized artists to be a larger part of the creative process, he admitted that songwriting doesn’t get any easier. But it does help to have a collaborative team that is opening to suggestions and welcomes mistakes to help create something that’s much bigger then themselves.
That blank page doesn’t get any less blank, my friend. But what makes it fun and what makes every experience different is the folks you’re in the room collaborating with. Every single face in this Brady Bunch zoom we have here met every Friday night at nine o’clock my time, six o’clock their time. It became a place to bring in new music, it became a place to experiment and play and tell our own stories and make mistakes, and that’s always what allows you to make something bigger than you could ever make alone.
I think that’s the fun of working on this project. The team of all-stars you see here, what they pulled out of me, and what we pulled out of each other, we could not have made in any other configuration, and that’s always what makes every page new and what makes you attack the blank page with renewed fervor.
And if there is one song that Miranda was avoiding for as long as he can, it was the “I Want” song. The “I Want” song is the crown jewel to any Disney animated musical as it lyrically serves as the character’s dream they have yet to achieve. So even though the songwriter is a huge Disney fan and well-versed in their musicals, he knew of the song’s legacy and what would happen if it didn’t live up to those high expectations.
I can give you all the examples because Disney has almost cornered the market in this particular type of song. And it’s an intimidating fact, you know, there’s ‘Part of Your World,’ there’s ‘Into the Unknown,’ there’s ‘Reflection’ from Mulan, there’s ‘Out There’ from Hunchback, there’s ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King.’ I could go on and on. Which is probably why the ‘I want’ song is always what takes me the longest. I’m just trying to push all those other songs out of my head. Because you know that if you do it, right, you’re going on that playlist. And I think something that all of those songs I just listed share is that they soar in this really specific way. And they’re so specific that as a kid, you go, ‘I get it. And I understand, and I’m with you on this journey.'”
While Miranda figured out the “I Want” song’s structure, there was another challenge that he had to overcome. Time. Because there was so little of it when Stephanie Beatriz — who voices Mirabel, the film’s lead — was eight-months pregnant during the production of the film.
That is the hardest to pin down because it takes you’re making your entire movie to understand the journey you’re going on in the first place. Right by the time I wrote ‘Waiting on a Miracle,’ time was of the essence not only with the production of the movie, but with Stephanie Beatriz because she was eight and a half months pregnant. And it was like we really got to finish this song, like we are on a real ticking clock and the joy of Steph’s vocals on that tune with her child sitting on her lungs while she has to hit these notes. And the fact that she is singing, waiting on a miracle while she is literally waiting on a miracle. I will never forget that like those two experiences of seeing her singing. In this moment in her life. They’re inextricably bound up together for me. And I’ll always cherish that.
Encanto opens in theaters on November 24, 2021.