Walt Disney Animation Studios’ computer-animated musical “Encanto” is set in a fantasy version of Colombia. Directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush, co-directed by Charise Castro Smith, the upcoming film centers on Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), a Colombian teenager who has to reconcile with the fact that she is the only one in her family without any magical powers. But when that magic is threatened, Mirabel takes it upon herself to save it.
“Encanto” will have eight original songs written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, who had written the songs for “Moana.” It seemed like a no-brainer to bring him back considering how big of a hit “Moana” was and the fact that he had already worked with Bush.
Before Smith came on board, Howard and Bush were discussing how the film should be set in Latin America. The more they talked about it especially the importance of family within the region, we wanted to learn about a place often described as the cross roads of Latin America, Colombia.
Their discussions led them to reunite with Juan Rendon and Natalie Ozma. The two had worked on a behind-the-scenes documentary on “Zootopia” at the time and they have remained friends with Bush and Howard ever since. And the one thing that the directors remember in their discussions with Rendon and Ozma was that kept talking about their home country, Colombia, a melting pot of Latin culture and music and dance and art and food, with some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet, also the home to magical realism.
Magical realism would serve as a means to bring cultural and family traditions to a film in a meaningful way. And that’s where Smith comes in because she has a deep knowledge of magical realism. During the interview process, Howard said Smith told them that “The language of magical realism just makes visceral sense to me. It’s woven into my imaginative DNA. 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, still does.”
So to infuse these real-life Encantos with magical realism, the directors and animation team took research trips to Colombia to get an idea of what the film could look like through the lens of the Latin American country. And to help advance that while also staying respectful to the nation, they put together the Colombian Cultural Trust. Similar to the cultural story trusts of “Moana” and “Raya and The Last Dragon,” the Colombian Cultural Trust was comprised of artists and experts in varying fields from architecture, botany, and music, to anthropology, culture, and textiles.
Additionally, those within Disney Animation were also invited to join. This also applies to Kai Martinez, who consulted on the dance choreography for “Encanto.” “The biggest joys that I got working on this film was to be able to share my experience as a Colombian American woman with my family and talk about my home, my culture, and really dive into that,” she said. “I really appreciated the interest and the desire to learn from the whole production team and the animation team to create an authentic feel, an authentic story.”
Their expertise would prove to be vital to the film’s authenticity as they wanted the film to be as much about Colombia as it is about family. For example, the homes seen in the film are inspired by those seen in Cartegena and Salento. Architects would provide information about the construction of casitas – or cottages -, while botanists would teach the art team about the plants that grow within the region.
ENCANTO - Director Byron Howard pictured in Walt Disney Animation Studios reference photo from Colombia research trip. Photo by Jared Bush. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Additionally, the color palettes and other designs had to be distinctly Colombian. Though some of color and pattern designs on the costumes would help audiences track the large number of Madrigal family members, symbolic visuals like the Christmas Orchid or a butterfly will be embroided onto the dress.
But people of Colombia are not a monolith, but rather a place full of diversity. “It’s got the most biodiversity anywhere in the world. Theeople and cultures are beautifully mixed. Like, every town, every place you went to is different, and these different traditions inspire other ones,” Howard said. “But we really wanted to do everything we could to get as much of Colombia into, the movie as possible.”
“Encanto” opens in theaters on November 24, 2021.