With Disney’s “Encanto” (November 24, in theaters), Lin-Manuel Miranda finally got to work on his first animated musical from the ground up after getting a taste with Disney’s “Moana” (featuring his Oscar-nominated song “How Far I’ll Go”) and Sony/Netflix’s “Vivo.” In fact, it’s the latest milestone in what has been an incredible year for the very hot Miranda, following the release of “Vivo,” as well as the adaptation of his Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” and his directorial debut about “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson, “Tick Tick Boom.”
“I remember saying to Tom Macdougall [president of Disney Music], I want to be in on the ground floor for the next one, and if you guys are ever making a Latino-themed animated musical, I’m your guy,” Miranda said. “And so to work with the dream team — [directors] Byron Howard and Jared Bush and [co-director] Charise Castro Smith — and really start to work together with an original story around the theme of a Latino family was special.”
Indeed, “Encanto” represents a departure as Disney’s 60th animated feature, not only because of its embrace of Latino culture and magical realism, but also because it departs from the traditional hero’s journey. “Encanto” concerns the magical Madrigal family, who live in an enchanted house in the mountains of Colombia. They all possess special powers for strength, healing, controlling nature, and shape-shifting. That is, except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz from “In the Heights”), whose quirky ordinariness makes her seem like an outsider, but whose tenacity helps rescue the family from a dark secret that threatens its magic.
“So often, when you’re making a movie, it’s about the individual character and the quest, and the other characters fall by the wayside as you work on the quest… and the stakes,” Miranda continued. “And we wondered if we could actually get an inter-generational Latino family up on that screen, have 12 major characters, and make the relationships between [them] be the stuff we make the movie about. So to get to write [eight original] songs about how my family sees me versus how I see myself was [unique]. Or how I’m frozen in this role within the family that’s both a blessing and a curse, or to write a gossip number and how that spreads through a family. What we talk about in private versus what we talk about at the dinner table. That all felt like needy stuff that we hadn’t seen in a Disney movie before, and so I was very proud of being a part of it.”
Crucially, the “Encanto” research trip to Colombia was more extensive than usual, with Miranda and his father joining the Disney filmmakers. “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,” said Howard. “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.”
In this regard, Miranda was greatly influenced by legendary Disney lyricist and shadow director Howard Ashman (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin”), who redefined the Disney animated musical with Broadway theater mechanics and empowering themes about identity and liberation. “Howard Ashman looms large, not only for his incredible storytelling gifts and his lyrical gifts, but because I really believe he’s responsible more than anyone else for the second golden age of Disney animation,” Miranda said.
“He came from New York and said, ‘Listen guys, here’s what musicals can do in an animated space.’ And he saw an opportunity that he wasn’t experiencing back in his stage work with [composer] Alan Menken. While working on ‘Moana,’ I watched this incredible hour-long conversation he had with the animators where he’s breaking down musical theater structure and why every song in ‘Little Mermaid’ exists.”
With the first song, “Family Madrigal,” in which Mirabel acquaints us with her relatives, Miranda reveals what he learned from Ashman’s opener, “Belle,” from “Beauty and the Beast.” “I wrote this before the movie had a second or a third act,” he added. “I said, ‘I know this song is gonna change and the characters’ names and the powers will change over the course of development, but we have to let the audience know who everyone is and how they’re related to each other and what their gifts are.’
“And it also demonstrates Mirabel’s incredible pride in being a part of this family. She goes: ‘This is my Abuela, look what she did. These are her kids, these are who they married. These are their kids, these are my incredible cousins.’ And then we have the delicious turn, which again, I compare to the reprise of ‘Belle,’ with the kids going, ‘Yeah, OK, but what about you? What’s your gift?’ And she goes, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ And the music gets twice as fast, and we do a double beat. She actually recaps everyone’s powers again, but at three times the tempo. I really look to ‘Belle’ from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ That’s a masterclass in introducing everyone in your world and then setting the story into motion.”
By contrast, Miranda was more innovative with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” about the black sheep of the family whose gift for prophecy has forced him into hiding. “I was really excited about ‘Bruno,’ which we hadn’t seen in a Disney musical before,” he said. “It’s a complicated family number and it introduces themes from characters that we don’t have time to go into with their own song. I looked to ‘A Weekend in the Country’ from ‘A Little Night Music,’ and ‘It’s Beginning to Snow’ from ‘Rent.’ We’ve got lots of different characters going in different directions.”
But with “Dos Oruguitas,” which delves into the tragic story of Mirabel’s grandparents fleeing their home, Miranda got to write his first song totally in Spanish. “I wanted to write a song that felt like it always existed…a moment where a character is going to sing to us what happened in real time,” he said. “The family history that is revealed in that animated sequence is so painful that I thought it will go down better with a folk song.
“Again, this is a result of the give and take of being there early [in Colombia]. And I was inspired by the butterfly motif over the course of the movie. The way the candle flame turns into a butterfly. And so the song is called ‘Dos Oruguitas’ because it’s about two caterpillars who are in love and scared to let each other go. But, of course, they have to let each other go to become their next selves, and that was such a beautiful nature metaphor for what the family is going through. They love each other, but they’re hanging on too tight, and they’re not seeing each other more fully because they’re too scared of going into that next moment. And so the contrast between that lyrical content and what we’re seeing is really exciting and new. And I was really far out of my comfort zone writing that much in Spanish.”