'Encanto' is Disney's first Latino musical. How the filmmakers got Colombia right

Tracy Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Everyone born into the Madrigal family is fantastical and magical. Well, almost everyone.

Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard, Walt Disney Animation Studios' "Encanto," which topped the Thanksgiving weekend box office in its theatrical exclusive release, follows Mirabel — the only member of her family who was not bestowed a magical ability upon her fifth birthday — as she figures out that she doesn't need a special gift to be extraordinary.

It's not an easy lesson to learn when one grows up surrounded by sisters and cousins who can use their unique gifts to help their village prosper. But just as Mirabel isn't defined by her lack of magic, she also comes to realize these powers bring her family members their own struggles too.

Members of the Madrigal family and their gifts are built on familiar archetypes. Mirabel's older sister Luisa is the strong one, so her gift is super strength that allows her to lift everything from donkeys to buildings. Her oldest sister Isabela is the golden child, so flowers bloom with every step she takes. And their nurturing mother Julieta cooks food that can heal actual ailments.

"My hope is that everybody can see some member of their family reflected in this," said co-director Charise Castro Smith, who wrote the "Encanto" screenplay with Bush. "We really tried to build it from a foundation of these family archetypes that are immediately relatable. And then, because the film is about perspective and seeing deeper, [it's about] moving past [the archetypes] and seeing that people in our families are more complex than these masks we put on them."

The desire to tell a story about different perspectives within a family was one of the elements that pushed the filmmakers to set "Encanto" in Colombia, a South American country with deep Indigenous, European and African cultural roots.


After working together on 2016's "Zootopia," Howard and Bush knew they wanted their next project together to be a musical. Bush had also previously worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda on "Moana" (2016). And from their earliest conversations, the filmmakers knew they shared a desire to tell a story featuring an extended family.

"Lin was very keen to do the definitive Latin American musical," said Howard. "But none of us knew where it should be set, exactly, because Latin America is huge. … We needed to find the perfect place and all roads kept pointing toward Colombia, which is this incredible crossroads of Latin American culture, of ethnicity, of traditions in food and dance. The families themselves are incredibly diverse and that's embraced in a way that we absolutely loved."

Colombia also has a rich tradition of magical realism — where magic is just a facet of everyday reality — and it offered the filmmakers a way to heighten the familiar family dynamics they wished to explore through a magic not yet seen in Disney films.

The Madrigals' powers are "a natural extension of these archetypes that we know very well, told in this tradition that's tied to the country in which [the story] set," said Bush. It "also allows us at Disney to use a type of magic that we've never done before — a magic born of emotion and personality and character. It was just really exciting to play in that realm."


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