Walt Disney Animation Studios released its first full-length film in 1937 with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. That first Disney Animated film began a cultural phenomenon of entertainment and storytelling style that continues to grow and diversify 84 years later.
Now the studios 60th film, “Encanto”, a vibrant ‘magical realism’ tale set in Colombia with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, will release in theaters November 24th. To put in some perspective, in the time between “Snow White” and their latest feature, there was a world war, 15 American Presidents and that whole thing where humanity reached space.
Speaking of magical realism, it is a literary term that was used to describe the Latin-American authors of the mid-20th century like Jose Martí and Gabriel García Marquez, whose work portrayed supernatural or fantastical elements within realistic fiction. Politics were also sometimes interwoven into these stories, which served not so much as fantasy fables but more of a depiction of real-world settings, struggles, and criticisms of the elite in Latin America.
Although Disney isn’t delving too deeply into the trenches of the human condition like those authors with “Encanto”, it is instilling the basic fundamentals of magical realism into the family friendly film: a story blending grounded reality and emotions, and which also happens to feature fantasy elements.
“Encanto” features a diverse extended family, the Madrigals, who reside in a hidden village called ‘The Encanto’, nestled in the hills of picturesque Colombia. The family lives within a sentient and ever-expanding magical home that awakens powerful gifts within all of the members of the Madrigal clan – minus the teenage protagonist Maribel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz). Despite not having mystic abilities of her own, it is Maribel who might be the only one able to figure out how to stop a lurking danger to The Encanto.
With this film, it just so happens to be that Walt Disney Animation’s history of magic storytelling and Latin-American’s magical realism seem like the perfect marriage of a narrative and the fantastical, and leading the charge to craft the whole thing was Disney mainstays Jared Bush and Byron Howard, and newcomer to film animation Charise Castro Smith. The three served as both writers and directors, and were helped along the way by a Colombian Cultural Trust to be sure to guide the film in an accurate portrayal of the people and traditions of Colombia.
Bush and Howard have worked together before on films such as “Zootopia” and have individually been part of bringing “Tangled” and “Moana” to life, while Castro Smith is originally a playwright who has had success in the television world, being a producer and writer on Starz’s New York City drama “Sweetbitter” and Netflix’s horror drama, “The Haunting of Hill House”.
In the following interview, Bush, Howard and Castro Smith give us a look behind “Encanto’s” moving frames and detail how they helped write and build this magical world within Colombia that is at its core grounded in a universal story of family, and the complexities of being part of one.
Thank you, for taking the time to talk about “Encanto”. To start off I was wondering how early in the planning phase was the idea settled on the main story arc and it being set in Columbia?
I’d say, right from the get-go, Byron and I were finishing up on “Zootopia”, and we knew we wanted to do a musical next. We love musicals. We’re like, “we have to do it.” And I had just been working with Lin-Manuel Miranda on “Moana”. And so it was sort of this confluence of, “oh, we can get everybody together!” But we had to find something that we all had common ground on. And as we all talked, family, extended families, the joy of family, the complexities of family, the challenge of family was something that we all really related to.
And so having that from the onset, knowing we want to tell a story about family. We want to spend time with this family. We wanted to get to know every member of this family was something that we knew that we wanted to do from the very beginning. It’s really, really hard. Then the notion of Colombia came in as we started talking to Lin, he definitely wanted to do a movie set in Latin America.
We actually didn’t know exactly where it would be set. So we spent months actually trying to figure out what type of place would make sense in this movie that’s really about perspective and seeing people differently, and all these different points of view. Columbia, which is a place of such a crossroads where so many different types of people are there, where there’s this amazing crossroads of music and art and dance and architecture, are sort of all coming together. It felt like a very natural place to have all of this diversity that we both wanted for the family of our story, but also thematically to talk about.
The term ‘magical realism’ has been used to describe the fantastical elements in “Encanto”. How is that incorporated within the film?
Charise Castro Smith
We were taking inspiration from magical realism from a really early point in the film. Even when we started kind of thinking about these characters and who they were, it was really important for all the elements of this film to be able to work just sort of in a grounded, non-magical way, so that when they sort of grew and got bigger, the magic felt like it was tied to something visceral and emotional and relatable. So a good example of that is just even how we were thinking about the characters.
So we really wanted there to be really archetypical family roles represented in this. A perfect example of this is Luisa, who is like the ‘steady rock of the family child’, the one who can sort of shoulder all the responsibility. And in this family, it just so happens that she has super strength and can lift five donkeys. So we really tried to use, as a guiding principle for the magic in this movie, that it was all kind of sprung from some actual fact, either about the person or an actual emotion or a real need that the character had.
So all the magic was sort of coming from the characters and coming from the people in this town.
So another thing that has been highlighted with “Encanto” is that it happens to be the 60th Walt Disney Animation Studios film. Working within Walt Disney Animation, I was wondering if there’s an ethos that is still followed today from the original Walt Disney Animation film and how that is incorporated into “Encanto”?
100%. It’s interesting to look back because we even have [a] sizzle piece that represents all the titles of every one of those 60 films up to “Encanto”, and looking at the pedigree and the legacy of this place, it can be very intimidating honestly, as you’re starting a new film. We always want to do our absolute best and the thing is that I think because we love what Disney films represent, Disney Animation is not only pertinent when the films come out, but these films are generational.
They get shared for generations into the future. And so we’re very aware of that. And having that core of great storytelling, a huge amount of heart pathos is super important. And that for us was another reason to lean into the grounding that magical realism inspired storytelling gives you, really linking this magic in this world, not just to arbitrary gifts from somewhere other than Earth, but just really kind of saying like, “emotion is magic and experience is magic, and family is magic. It’s everywhere if you know where to look for it.”
So there’s something about that that’s really good. But I think I’m hugely proud of the fact that we get to wear that moniker of being the 60th animated film, especially just on the cusp of this whole studio celebrating its Centennial in just a few years, which is just another incredible milestone that we’re looking forward to.
There’s also, like a great quote from Walt Disney, where he said, “If you want to make a great musical, make sure there’s a song that Carlos Vives sings on.” And so for this movie we really took that to heart. And we’re glad to finally fulfill that dream. [Everyone laughs]
Charise, I know you’ve worked as a playwright, you’ve worked on TV, on the stage, so I was wondering what it was like to move into your first feature film and whether there were any growing pains? And how that experience was in general?
It was wild. It was my first time working in features, my first time working in animation, and it’s a really vastly different process than making a TV show or writing a play. But the thing that has been just the most mind blowing to me on a daily basis is collaborating with, honestly, some of the best visual artists in the world, and just seeing the things that our Visual Development Department came up with in terms of the look of this movie, the character designers; seeing these characters that we had in our head come to life like all the animators, the riggers, all the departments just working together to create something just magical and beautiful.
I have so much appreciation for having been through this process now because I feel like I can look at a frame of this movie and just know the amount of love and creativity and heart and passion that goes into literally every single frame of this movie. It’s really mind blowing.
Now in terms of directing, was there anything challenging on the animation side or any new technical challenges on which you can speak?
Oh, yeah. I think the scope of what we were asking the crew to do was kind of mind boggling. They were very kind to us. I’m sure they were daunted by the scope of this. As you first pitch it, you got a family and a house that seems pretty simple, but the house has worlds inside the rooms. The family is enormous. The town that they live in has hundreds of people. It is Columbia in a certain period of time decades ago, which had certain costuming, all of which has, like, fabric complexity.
There’s a massive amount of dance in the movie, in a great way, more choreography and more dancing than I think we’ve done in any other Disney film. And then we also have our very specific ethnicity throughout the town and also in the family itself, where we have natural Afro-Colombian hair, which is very different even from family member to family member. All of that takes amazing technology and geniuses to make it happen and bring it to the screen.
But I have to say this last year for the three of us has been one week after the next of just being amazed at what people have been producing over the last four years. Just brilliant technology, brilliant artistry, amazingly inspired animation, incredibly subtle. There’s even a new eye shader that we’re using on this film for the first time. And it’s such a film where we have intensely emotional scenes where the eyes are all about connecting with the audience. It made an incredible, incredible difference. But everyone pushing the envelope on every level has been the case in this movie.
Thanks again, Jared, Byron, Charise. For my last question, I wanted to ask all of you, what is one takeaway that you’ve brought from the experience of working on “Encanto”?
Oh, man, I would say that I don’t know my family at all is my takeaway. I think that one of the things we learned, we researched our own families, and I was stunned by what I didn’t know. Not just generations back, but among my siblings, my parents, my grandparents. It was really humbling, to be honest. And I think that to me, the biggest takeaway is that we really don’t know each other that well, and we don’t always present the truth to people. There’s a lot that we hide. But, man, if you try to understand it even a little bit, you really understand people better.
You make different connections. You realize that you’re not alone as you think you are. And so to me, that’s the number one thing. Get to know your family. It’s worth it.
Oh, my goodness. The biggest takeaway from the last three years, I think for me, it’s just appreciation for the collaborative nature of this art form. The deep, profound collaboration of making an animated movie is just my biggest takeaway from this amazing last three years.
And I would say off of that, I’m so impressed with our crew and our consultants and the team that made the film and people really thinking about storytelling on every level. We’ve seen that with our lighters, with our cinematographers, with the choreographers, with our animators.
And just as a celebration of the miracle that Columbia is and our friends Juan and Natalie [Juan Rendón and Natalie Osma of the Colombian Cultural Trust], who have been partners with us on this whole journey. It’s very emotional for us, I think, because it’s a big period of our lives, and I think to see it all come together in such a beautiful way has just been so rewarding. And I feel like I’ve learned so much that I didn’t know four years ago. I appreciate these stories so much more.