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‘Encanto’ Explores Colombian Culture through Magical Realism and Song

MEET MIRABEL – Welcome to the family Madrigal where every child is blessed with a magic gift unique to them. Everyone, that is, except Mirabel. Voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, Mirabel is determined to prove she belongs within this extraordinary family. Opening in the U.S. on Nov. 24, 2021, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto” features songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney Animation Studios has a long and rich history of delivering endearing and heartwarming stories about being different. Recent entries like The Princess and the Frog, Moana, and Raya and the Last Dragon have sought to spotlight communities and cultures that haven’t always been at the center of major motion pictures. The sixtieth film from the studio, Encanto, is a wondrous, remarkable look at individuality and identity in a Colombian family where every person has a magical gift.

Encanto is overflowing with talent. The voice cast includes Stephanie Beatriz (Mirabel), John Leguizamo (Bruno), Maria Cecilia Botero (Abuela Alma), Diane Guerrero (Isabella), Jessica Darrow (Luisa), Angie Cepeda (Julieta), Mauro Castillo (Felix), Carolina Gaitan (Pepa), Rhenzy Feliz (Camilo), Ravi Cabot-Conyers (Antonio), and Adassa (Dolores). Behind the scenes, there’s songwriter Lin Manuel Miranda, director Byron Howard, director and co-writer Jared Bush, co-director and co-writer Charise Castro Smith, producer and Walt Disney Animation Studios president Clark Spencer, and producer Yvett Merino.

© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Each member of the cast celebrates the spirit of their characters and the way in which their energy manifests itself in an ability, like being able to talk to animals or super-strength. Several actors are also part of the Spanish-language voice cast, highlighting another productive and inclusive aspect of this cinematic experience. There is a particular pride in being able to tell a story that feels distinctly Colombian and representative of a culture not often seen reflected onscreen. A big part of that was none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Byron Howard: Lin has been with us on this journey from the very beginning, which is so rare to have your songwriter with you for this experience. So when we went to Colombia with Lin and his dad, Luis, who we love, which was an amazing experience. We were just blown away by learning about Colombia from people who we love, people who are of Colombian heritage, and were sharing their families, and that warmth, and just the diversity of families and music. 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’re in tiny little towns way on the country, we’re 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. We came back really charged up to get as much of Colombia into this film as we possibly could.

© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The film’s colorful portrayal of its character’s personalities expressed through their incredible abilities is a key component of the experience, one that the voice actors and filmmakers both found poignant and a defining element of the film.

Carolina Gaitán: There’s something very particular that I can notice here in this movie, and it’s the magical realism. And you can notice it in every single character. You can notice it in every single frame, in every single scene, in every single song. So it’s magical to be part of finally something that could tell a little bit more and so highly about our country that we freaking love with our entire heart.

Charise Castro: We were definitely very, very inspired by magical realism, by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez. I was reading 100 Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera, and also Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits. A lot of different magical realism, as we were starting to work on this movie.

© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The visuals and the music combine masterfully to create an immersive and stunning narrative. The choice and meaning of the songs was crucial to the effect.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I loved the way they embodied the miracle by having this flame from a candle turn into a cascade of butterflies. And in approaching this moment, without spoilers, it’s a moment where we reveal a really kind of personal part of the Madrigal family history, and it didn’t feel right to have a character sing in real time, which is what all the other characters are doing over the course of the movie. And so I thought, “I think we need a folk song. I think we need a song that feels like it’s always existed.” And riffing off of the butterfly imagery, I thought, “Well, you know, butterflies have to go through a miracle to even become butterflies.” 

So I wrote this song about two caterpillars who are in love, and are scared of letting each other go, but of course have to let each other go to become their next selves. It was a nature metaphor that was already baked into the visuals of the film, but speaks so specifically to what this family is going through, in terms of trying to see each other more fully. And then Sebastián Yatra takes it to a whole other level with his beautiful vocal performance of the song. But it is harder to rhyme in Spanish. I just have a much more limited vocab in Spanish. So I had to really reach for my thesaurus, and outside my comfort zone to really try to write a song that feels like it’s always existed. That was the goal, and I hope we’ve achieved it.

© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The milestone of this being the sixtieth film from Disney’s animation department is not lost on its players, who thought carefully about the legacy they wanted to foster.

Clark Spencer: If you think about the fact that Encanto is our 60th, our six-zero animated film, starting with Snow White back in 1937, it’s pretty incredible. Even though we never said to ourselves, “Well, we gotta figure out how we have it feel like it has one foot in our history, and one foot in the future,” it does. Because it has this incredible music within it, these songs, and songs have always been iconic to our films. And the gift that Lin brought to this film is just absolutely incredible. It has these beautiful visuals, it has heart, it has emotion, it has comedy, it has wonder, and it has magic, these things that have always existed.

Stephanie Beatriz: Disney has this incredible tradition of crafting these female characters, the protagonists and their stories, 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 honor 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.

Encanto opens exclusively in theaters on Wednesday, November 24th.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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