Disney reaches a new milestone with “Encanto” (November 24, in theaters), the studio’s first feature-length animated musical set in Latin America (watch the new trailer below). Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Vivo”) contributing eight songs that help explore the rich cultural diversity of Colombia through the magical Madrigal family and their enchanted village. They all possess superpowers, except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz from “In the Heights”), whose quirky ordinariness makes her feel like an outsider.
The idea started percolating well before directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush finished their Oscar-winning “Zootopia.” They both decided on a musical follow-up, especially after Bush told Howard how much he enjoyed working on “Moana” with Miranda (who scored an Oscar nomination for the original song, “How Far I’ll Go”). “It seemed like this natural convergence and in talking to Lin, he [told us] how he always wanted to do a movie about Latin America with Disney animation,” said Howard, whose previous musical experience was directing “Tangled.”
The idea of a large extended Latin American family with its clearly defined roles and expectations coming into conflict through magical realism, blurring fantasy and reality, was ripe for music and dance. “And Lin, to his credit, was very open to writing [eight songs] for an ensemble, and embraced the complexity of that,” Howard continued. “And then when Charise [Castro Smith] joined us and brought this great feeling for magical realism and the core super powers all began to unite.”
Mirabelle’s sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow of “Feast of the Seven Fishes”) possesses super strength and the golden child Isabelle (Diane Guerrero of “Orange is the New Black”) has the ability to make flowers bloom. Bruno (John Leguizamo of the “Ice Age” franchise), the family’s estranged uncle, can predict the future. “As we were crafting the characters, we started with an emotional core that could exist without any magic whatsoever,” said Smith. “We were thinking about archetypal family roles and what happened if those roles were pumped up and made magical.”
But it was Mirabelle that drew co-writer and co-director Smith (“The Haunting of Hill House”) to the project. “I was so excited about creating this character who is flawed, awkward, and feels like a real 14-year-old struggling to figure out their identity and their self-worth. And it really resonated with me, having been an awkward 14-year-old with glasses and curly hair at one point in my life. Her journey is going outside of herself, taking a risk in knowing each of her family members a little more deeply and understanding them in a different way from their presentational roles.”
Smith believes that the universality of “Encanto” invites us all to question family roles and expectations. “Jared has this story about assuming that his sister had exactly the same experience of growing up as him, and it turned out to be completely untrue,” she added. “This is something the movie does and hopefully will help build re-connections between family members.”
For Bush, “Encanto” indirectly touches on the impact of social media in putting out a persona that people misunderstand. “You see on Instagram they’re always happy,” he said. “And people ask why they’re not like that. But none of that’s real. I think the other great thing about the movie is, yes, we’re talking about this family that we’re starting to see different pieces of, but it really applies to everyone: the friends around us, our community. Hopefully, it’ll challenge a lot of people to question what seems to be on the surface of the people around them.”
A sneak peek of 20 minutes revealed the exquisite beauty of Colombia as the crossroads of Latin America, as well as the colorful and eccentric Madrigals, who live in a grand house with its own sense of magic. As with the Polynesian “Moana” and the Southeast Asian “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the Disney team gathered their own cultural trust comprised of Colombian experts, and made an invaluable research trip to the mountains, coasts, and plains of Colombia.
“We had a more extensive research trip than usual, with Lin and his dad joining us,” Howard said. “We went from town to town and each had a vibrancy and a difference among the people with their fun sense of play and conflicts. That sparring is something that we really wanted to pay attention to and what a perfect place for this diverse family to be set. And the advantage of song and dance and working with Lin was using the inner monologues to help drive the character arcs.”
Miranda liked the unique sound of the Colombian instrumentation and orchestration, and especially liked the emphasis on the accordion. He mixed genres, using a reggaeton vibe for Luisa. But, for the opening song, “Family Madrigal,” in which Mirabelle introduces her large extended family, Miranda was inspired by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Belle,” which opens “Beauty and the Beast.”
“The fun was finding a song that could hold all of that information across three generations,” said Miranda in the production notes. “Then it becomes a puzzle to put together, as Stephen Sondheim might say. We start with [the grandmother] Abuela [María Cecilia Botero] and work through each generation.”
“What we found when working on the story is Lin knows when a song should be there and what it can say,” Howard said. “We kept on finding these new layers of our characters every time a new song would come in. For this movie it can only be told through music.”