Families! Love them or hate them, you can’t escape them. And Disney Studios’ latest animated tale — their 60th — tells the story of an exceptional extended family, blessed with magical powers, but that won’t stop audiences from relating to these new characters. Or so the makers say.
‘Encanto’ tells the tale of the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house in a magical place called Encanto. The Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift from super strength to the power to heal — every child except one, Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz of ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ fame). But when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is in danger, Mirabel decides that she, the only ordinary Madrigal, might just be her exceptional family’s last hope.
Directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush, and co-directed by Charise Castro Smith, ‘Encanto’ features original music written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of ‘Hamilton’ fame, who has also previously written a few songs for Disney film ‘Moana’ (2016).
“I think it is the family-est family film that ever familied. We took family as our thesis in the movie. Anyone who has grown up in any family understands the tension of how you see yourself versus how your family sees you, and how that grows and changes over time. That is multiplied by your siblings, and your aunts, and your uncles, and your cousins and the ways in which you interact with all those folks. And so, that’s all meaty stuff to write about. And honestly, I don’t think there is a person who can go to this movie and not identify with a character up on that screen,” says Miranda over Zoom.
From day one, the makers knew they wanted to tell a story with an extended family.
Says director Bush, “Honestly, at Disney, we’ve tried many times to like, ‘Maybe there should be more family members.’ And ultimately you’re like, ‘Nah, there’s just one person.’ Like, Moana’s going on a boat, that’s just by herself, family’s not coming. So for this movie, from the beginning, we knew we had to make that a priority. And we also know, okay, well, if we’re gonna have 12 members of the family, they have to be separate. Who are these people gonna be? So early on, all of our research was really our own families. And we found these archetypes. Whether it’s like the black sheep of the family, or the golden child, or the responsible one, or the mum who heals with her food, all of these things felt very familiar to us, and very relatable.”
“And then, we also happen to really love magic. So a really fun part was saying, ‘Okay, the responsible strong one, what does that turn into? Oh, she can lift anything.’ Or, ‘Here’s a guy, he’s sort of nervous, and he’s sort of, like, always worrying. Then he’s a guy who can see the future, and he’s always worried about what’s about to happen.’ Uh, or Isabela, who’s the golden child, flowers literally spring up in our footsteps. So, what I think what we really tried to do was take these very relatable, familiar dynamics, and then just plus them and make them magical,” he added.
Magic abounds in ‘Encanto’. “An ‘Encanto’ is a term sometimes used for a place of magic and heightened spirituality, where magical or extraordinary things can happen,” says Castro Smith. “It’s a place of natural wonder where the landscape is infused with magical possibility.”
But, says Howard, it’s not your everyday magic. “There’s magic in the world, but it’s grounded in reality,” he says. “Magical realism, an inspiration for our film, is tied to real emotions, real events, and it’s thoughtful and layered. It’s not just an easy answer to your problems, it’s actually a reflection of the experiences you have every day whether you’re enjoying success or struggling.”
Set in Colombia, the film embraces the diversity, culture, people and, of course, the music. The location, says Bush, was wholly driven by story. “So much of Latin America is a combination of Indigenous, African and European heritage. Colombia is considered a ‘crossroads of Latin America’ — and we wanted to reflect that within one family, the Madrigals,” says Bush.
To really immerse themselves in the culture, Howard, Bush and Miranda — along with Lin-Manuel’s father, Luis, and executive music producer Tom MacDougall — travelled to Colombia in 2018 to explore and soak up the surroundings.
“Columbia being this crossroads of culture, of dance, of food, of tradition, it just was an incredible moment for us. We were all over the place. We were in tiny little towns way out in the country, we were in huge cities like Bogota and Cartagena, all of which have a different vibe. And we love that people from these different areas celebrate those specifics of their personalities. And we looked in any way we could to try to get that into the [Madrigal] family,” says Howard.
Speaking to the expanding diversity in the Disney universe, Hpward says, “I’m very excited about the next 10 years of Disney Animation, because we have filmmakers coming in who are going to expand what we’re doing with our storytelling. And this one for me was an amazing learning experience. This was five years about falling in love with Colombia, a country that deserves to be known for how glorious it is.”
STEPHANIE BEATRIZ TALKS ‘ENCANTO’ CHARACTER MIRABEL
Mirabel is the only child in the extraordinary Madrigal family who wasn’t blessed with a magical gift. “In her family, worth is tied to gifts,” says director Jared Bush. “What Mirabel wants more than anything is to truly matter to her family — especially Abuela.”
According to director Byron Howard, Mirabel has a complicated relationship with her grandmother. “When the movie begins, they are as close as can be,” he says. “It’s important to understand how much they truly adore each other. There’s a special connection between them. But when Mirabel turns five and walks up the stairs to her door to learn what gift is in store for her — only to get nothing — they’re both left adrift. Neither knows how to deal with it.”
Says co-director and screenwriter Charise Castro Smith (playwright ‘Feathers and Teeth’, writer ‘The Haunting of Hill House’), “Mirabel is a people pleaser — she feels this need to compensate for the fact that she didn’t get a gift. She’s always told herself that she’s OK with the dynamic in her family — but deep down, she’s not. She really wants to make a change. Her journey is to recognise her own intrinsic value and find her place within this family.”
Here’s what actress Stephanie Beatrix, who voices Mirabel, has to say about her character:
“Mirabel doesn’t have a gift, which I find extremely relatable, because there have been many times in my life where I felt like I didn’t belong, I didn’t measure up, I wasn’t talented enough to be there, I had that sort of impostor syndrome. But I also discovered by getting older, and working more and more on trusting myself, that I do have something to offer, and it is special, and I am myself. So not everybody’s gonna love that but the people that do are gonna love it really hard.”
On what she brought in from her own life into her character:
“Awkwardness. My anxiety, and honestly, my use of comedy. Often when I’m uncomfortable, or don’t really know what to do, or how to handle a situation, I often turn to try to make a joke out of it, to make myself more comfortable, to make somebody else more comfortable. I think comedy is really useful because it takes the air out of stuff, you know? Like, everything can be really intense, and then you make a joke, and everyone relaxes. You can’t really laugh if you’re tense. Does that make sense? So I think I tried to bring that to Mirabel. And yeah, I like to improvise. I like jokes. And I like making other people laugh.”
On being a part of the Disney Princess tradition:
“Technically, Mirabel is not a princess, but she is a Disney heroine, which I think is even cooler. Disney has this incredible tradition of crafting these female characters — the protagonists and their stories are these girls and women who are really brave, really good at heart, want the best for everyone around them, and are willing to go on these sometimes really dangerous, crazy, magical adventures to get what they want. And I’m really proud to be part of that legacy, to hopefully honour the work of all of the women that have come before me that have been in this position, and also hopefully add something new to it as well.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda on writing the song ‘Waiting on a Miracle’: “When I wrote ‘Waiting on a Miracle’, time was of the essence, not only with the production of the movie, but with Stefanie Beatriz, because she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. And it was like, ‘We really gotta finish this song. Like, we are on a real ticking clock’. And the joy of Stef’s vocals on that tune with her child sitting on her lungs while she has to hit these notes, and the fact that she is singing ‘Waiting on a Miracle’ while she is literally waiting on a miracle, I will never forget that. Those two experiences of seeing her singing this moment in her life, they’re inextricably bound up together for me, and I’ll always cherish that.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Encanto’ releases in UAE cinemas on November 25.