Disney’s 60th animated feature, Encanto, is a colourful, magical celebration of family, music, and Colombian culture. The film follows the extraordinary Madrigal family, who live in a hidden, enchanted village (the ‘Encanto’) high in the country’s mountains. Their home, their Casita, has gifted each member of the clan with a unique power—from talking to animals to controlling the weather—all, except for young teen Mirabel. When she discovers the Encanto’s magic is in danger, she sets out on a journey to become the hero her family needs.
Written by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush, and directed by Bush and Byron Howard, Encanto features 8 new songs by award-winning composer and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. That Shelf got to sit in on a press conference with the filmmakers and voice cast to find out more about Walt Disney Animation’s latest. Here are five things that stood out:
Lin-Manuel was brought onto the production in the very early stages, far earlier than is usual for an animated film. Jared Bush had collaborated with him on Moana and wanted to include the multi-hyphenate talent in brainstorming sessions for the story and for the music. The topic they kept circling back to was one they all had in common: family. They realized that everyone had stories to tell about their complicated and fascinating familial relationship–both biological and found. It’s a universally relatable subject. But it also led them to the question at the heart of the Encanto, which as Howard described it, was “how well do we truly know our families, and how well do our families know us?”
Given that central conceit, filmmakers knew that they would have to focus on not one character, like the majority of Disney films, but many–all from one family. “Moana’s going on a boat,” Bush joked, “[her] family’s not coming.” Multiple main characters meant more work for everyone involved, but no one was fazed. The director went on to explain how they aimed to make each character unique: “Early on, all of our research was really our own families. And 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 her food, all of these things felt very familiar to us, and very relatable.” They settled on 12 main characters and came up with the idea of magical realism, individual gifts of magic, to really set them apart as individuals.
Stephanie Beatriz, who voices main character Mirabel, pointed out that even though Encanto is about one large family, it still fits perfectly within the Disney canon of films we’ve all come to know and love. “Disney has this incredible tradition of crafting these female characters who are really brave, really good at heart, want the best for everyone around them, and are willing to go on these sometimes really dangerous, crazy, magical adventures to get what they want.” But more than that, the film nails the interpersonal and often messy relationships, giving audiences an authentic portrayal of a multi-generational Colombian family all living under one roof. That’s what iconic South American actress María Cecilia Botero loves about her character, Abuela Alma, the Madrigal matriarch. “What I really like about Abuela is that she’s not the typical Disney abuela. She’s mean sometimes. [But] she’s also so tender, so lovely.”
Anytime Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved, it’s hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm over the project and Encanto is no different. That’s not to say that all of the 8 new songs he wrote for the project came to him easily. One key number, “Dos Oruguitas”, which was intended to sound like a Colombian folk song that had been passed down by generations, was harder to write than you’d think. “I just have a much more limited vocab in Spanish,” Miranda explained, “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.” Another song, “Surface Pressure”, hit a little closer to home. The song deals with the constant weight of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the oldest sibling and Miranda wrote the song as a bit of an apology-slash-love letter to his oldest sister.
Given how musical Encanto is, it’s not surprising to find out that many of the film’s voice cast are talented musicians and singers in their own right. Both Mauro Castillo, the voice of Félix, and Carolina Gaitán, who plays Félix’s wife, Pepa, are salsa singers. It was important for both of them to see the film reflect the diversity and variety of Colombian music and they were truly happy with the result. Gaitán, particularly noted: “It’s magical to be part of something that finally tells a bit more, and so highly, about our country that we love with our entire heart.”
Before production began, filmmakers still had to make a decision about where the story would unfold. Colombia, considered the crossroads of Latin America, seemed the perfect place to explore the complexities of one magical, extended family with its rich culture, born of Spanish, Indigenous, and African influences. To get a better sense of the country, the creative team travelled to Colombia in 2018. They took in the larger cities like Cartagena and Bogotá and smaller spots like Salento and Palenque. Most importantly, they experienced something they had only read about in their research–encantos. Described as places of natural, heightened spirituality, it became clear to the team that they’d hit on the final piece of the puzzle where the film was concerned. They’d been looking for a way to incorporate magic into the film and now they’d found both it and a title for their film.
Once filmmakers had arrived at the location of the film, they knew they had a responsibility to portray Colombia and Encanto’s character authentically. They actually formed a group called the Colombian Cultural Trust, which brought together experts in a host of subjects to help all levels of production effectively. “[It] is like many countries packed into one, so we had to be careful not to just ask our consultants from one region,” Howard explained. “We had to have coastal consultants, and consultants from Cali and Bogotá, and everywhere in the country.” Within Walt Disney Animation itself, employees came together to form a consultant group they termed Familia.
The resulting film is something the voice cast is especially proud of. John Leguizamo, who was born in Bogotá, found it particularly touching to see his life experiences represented on screen. “There were a couple of moments that really hit me hard,” the actor explained. “It was when I saw all the colours. ‘Cause that’s how my family is in Colombia. You know, everybody can be really dark, or light, straight black hair, or super curly hair. I mean, it looked like my family, it looked like the way I grew up.” It wasn’t just the look of the Encanto that stuck with him, but the sound: “To hear, you know, cumbia, and vallenato, and Carlos Vives, like the real music from Colombia, on top of that, you’re like, ‘This is too much for me.’ It was amazing.”