The 60th feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios opens with crickets chirping quietly and the sound of someone whispering, “Abre tus ojos” (open your eyes). Right from the opening moment of Encanto, the audience is immersed in the sights and sounds of Colombia.
The past few Walt Disney Animation Studios films took place in fictional lands — inspired by real places, but fictional nonetheless. Raya and the Last Dragon was set in Kumandra, a Southeast Asian nation like Cambodia, Myanmar, or Thailand. Moana took place in Motunui, modeled on Polynesia and Hawaii. Frozen and Frozen II unfolded in Arendelle, a mythical Scandinavian land.
“From the beginning we knew we wanted to set it in Latin America,” Encanto producer Clark Spencer tells Boxoffice Pro, “but do we do it ‘inspired by’ or pick a real location? In our research, we discovered that Colombia is really the crossroads of Latin America. The people are Spanish, they’re Black, they’re Indigenous. The land has [diverse] topography. Within this one country, you can get everything you want and more from Latin America.”
The location is real. What’s surreal is — pretty much everything else.
The opening sequence tells the Madrigal family’s backstory: forced from their longtime village almost a century earlier, they settled into a house in the middle of a forest. The family members, and the house they reside in, gained magical powers. Then the scene fast-forwards to the present day, when a young woman in that opening flashback is now the elderly matriarch of a multigenerational family unlike any other.
Fifteen-year-old protagonist, Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz of television’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” sings an opening number introducing her family, including shape-shifter Camilo; Pepa, who can control the weather; Antonio, who communicates with animals; and Luisa, who boasts super strength. Throughout the tune, teacups pour themselves, shoes slide onto characters’ feet as they’re walking, and a staircase instantly transforms into a slide.
If the opening number—the way it sets the scene and introduces every character in the large ensemble cast—reminds you of the opening number from Broadway’s Hamilton, there’s a reason for that: Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the film’s eight original songs. “I was working from home in my bedroom for most of this project, and my 6-year-old daughter stays out of my bedroom most of the day,” producer Yvett Merino says. “But one time she came in, saw our live Zoom meeting which included Lin, and exclaimed, ‘That’s Hamilton!’”
Ah yes, the Zoom meetings. Which raises the question: where exactly was the production process on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, “the day everything changed”?
“That day, we had just screened [a very early version of] the movie for the third time,” director and writer Jared Bush says, noting they ultimately screened it eight times over the course of production. “Clark came in and said, ‘We’re going to do something called social distancing. Everyone go home. It will probably be about two weeks,’” Bush laughs at the memory.
“When we finally got back to the studio in-person after more than a year, long-gone iterations of characters and storyboards were pinned up on the walls,” Bush remembers. “The office was a time capsule of how the movie used to be.”
So how exactly did the movie used to be?
“We thought it was a funny idea to have Mirabel playing with dolls and talking to herself at the beginning of the movie,” co-director and writer Charise Castro Smith admits, though they ultimately nixed the idea as slightly too juvenile for the teenage character.
“At one point, Pepa’s power was being indestructible,” director Byron Howard adds. “In order to retrieve a soccer ball on the other side of a cliff, they’d load her into the cannon and shoot her across the canyon.” They dropped the concept for several reasons — namely, if one of the characters were literally indestructible, that would presumably eliminate the need for Mirabel to embark on her heroic quest.
That quest, to save her family’s house from a threat to its magic, is made all the more challenging by a small problem: Mirabel is the only member of the family without any powers.
Her outward appearance reflects her all-around ordinariness. After so many unrealistically beautiful Disney heroines throughout the decades, from Snow White, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Cinderella to the more recent Elsa (Frozen), Moana, and Rapunzel, Mirabel is the first Disney female animated protagonist with glasses—and oversize ones, at that. While three male Disney animated protagonists have worn glasses—in Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Chicken Little, and Meet the Robinsons, not to mention the title character in Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter franchise—Disney seemed to be loath to take that leap with a female character, until now.
That design also extended to her clothing. “Mirabel’s embroidery in her costume was intentionally imperfect,” associate production designer Lorelay Bové says, “like what a teenager might draw in their diary.” That’s in deliberate contrast to other characters, such as Mirabel’s father, Augustín, who wears a three-piece suit, or her older sister, Isabela, who wears a Cattleya trianae orchid, the national flower of Colombia, in her hair.
The lead filmmakers, accompanied by Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father, Luis, were inspired to include these geographically specific details after a 2018 preproduction trip to Colombia, where they immersed themselves in the nation’s culture, history, music, architecture, and more. They were largely coming in as novices: Miranda’s ancestry is Puerto Rican, while Howard and Bush landed the job after co-directing 2013’s hit Zootopia and had no connections to Colombia.
To ensure the nation was represented accurately, the filmmakers set up what they nicknamed the Colombian Cultural Trust, a group of 10 people who were either from the nation or experts on it, including journalists and anthropologists. They contributed in various ways, including by reviewing various versions of the script.
What’s an example of a way the Trust influenced the movie? “Colombian families are very close-knit, often touching each other, hugging each other,” head of animation Kira Lehtomaki explains. “So, we didn’t shy away from having them constantly touching each other’s hair or holding each other’s arms.”
Disney screened three musical sequences at a recent press junket. The opening number clearly contains Colombian and other Latin American influences in a fun upbeat style. So does “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which tells the tale of the black sheep member of the family in a slinky mid-tempo salsa.
Then the movie breaks with those influences completely on the third song, in which Jessica Darrow’s Luisa laments that her physical superstrength masks a fragile ego. With no detectable Colombian influence at all, the song clearly owes a debt to the ubiquitous female-empowerment pop anthems of the 2010s. Then again, perhaps it will end up the soundtrack’s biggest hit, just as “How Far I’ll Go” became the biggest hit from Moana, despite possessing arguably the least detectable Polynesian musical or lyrical influence on the soundtrack.
“We would meet with Lin every Friday night, 6 p.m. our time, 9 p.m. his time, because he’s on the East Coast. That’s a big ask for somebody, to always meet on Friday night,” acknowledges Spencer, who in addition to his producer role also serves as president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “We’d be updating him on the story, he’s in a room with instruments around him, would immediately be inspired by something, grab an instrument and start playing. The great Lin-Manuel Miranda is performing just for you!”
With the film approaching its announced November 24 release date, theatrical exclusivity was hardly guaranteed.
Following September’s massive debut of Disney and Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those fears were eliminated. Due in large part to its theatrical exclusivity, the film opened above even the most optimistic projections and currently ranks as the highest-grossing release of 2021 domestically. Later that same week, Disney announced that all its remaining 2021 movies would receive theatrical exclusivity, albeit for varying lengths of time. For Encanto, that’s 30 days, after which it will premiere on Disney Plus on Christmas Eve.
But truly, this film begs to be seen at the cinema. “When we were making the movie in quarantine, we could only see it on computers,” Bush says. “We could only see it on the big screen when we went back to the studio [around May]. Seeing it huge for the first time, I literally had tears down my face.”
AT THE MOVIES
What’s your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
Clark Spencer, Producer and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios: Peanut M&M’s and Diet Coke. The reason I don’t go to the popcorn is because I literally cannot stop. My parents owned a single-screen theater when I was a kid. When I was young, I would sit on my grandmother’s lap while she sold tickets. My older sisters would work at the concession stand. I was jealous. At the end of the night, I could pick one thing each night. I would pick Necco wafers.
Byron Howard, Director: Popcorn, Junior Mints, and Twizzlers.
Jared Bush, Director and Writer: Popcorn. Come on! I will go through a bucket, and if I can get my free refill, I will make myself sick.
Charise Castro Smith, Co-Director and Screenwriter: Popcorn. And if I’m feeling a little different, nachos.
Yvett Merino, Producer: Red Vines and Diet Coke. But not together! I’ve tried it—it’s too much!