I’ve seen every Disney animated film for the past decade, and each other seems to tug on a heartstring. Watching the animation studio’s 60th film “Encanto”, however, tugged on so many heartstrings that I thought I was going to lose it in the theater.
Like everyone who consumes any type of media, we often project ourselves on characters we see in movies or songs we listen to. Perhaps I had such a visceral reaction to watching Mirabel and the Madrigal family because the central antagonist in the movie was no person, but an emotionally destructive idea.
Charise Castro Smith, a second-generation Cuban American, joined the “Encanto” team three years ago, which already had Disney Animation veterans Jared Bush and Byron Howard developing a story set in her country. As they handled the more magical parts of the storytelling, Smith felt compelled to borrow a common narrative from her countrymen.
“This history of internal displacement within the country resonated with people we spoke with, including the Colombian Cultural Trust,” she said. (Cultural trusts are often groups formed by Disney Animation’s filmmakers with people who come from the ethnicity that they are using as a setting or character backstory). Smith went on to say that she borrowed from her personal experiences of having felt distant from the closest thing she had growing up, which was her family.
That basic arc was something that already connected well with what Bush and Howard were writing at the time, too, focusing on a family where each family member would be given a magical gift except for one of them, Mirabel.
“Mirabel is a very empathetic character, but she also has a lot to learn as well. Underlying all of what she thought she knew about her family and their gifts, there was a trauma that Abuela Alma went through that she wouldn’t let anyone know about,” Bush said about the basic premise they were looking to build the story up into a unique catharsis moment set upon vulnerability and honesty.
To help guide that journey, the filmmakers also wanted to be inspired by the honest stories of the Colombian people, much of which came in the form of magical realism, a type of fiction that’s set in the real world, but gets driven by magical elements that blur the lines of reality and fantasy.
“In our case, it wouldn’t be wizards and wands, but the magic would be informed by emotions,” said Howard about how the magical “gifts” that the family was given would be a central component to drive the story forward. Both him and Bush read through tons of screenplays until they came upon one of Charise’s plays that focused on an internal conflict within a family that made it all come together.
Howard continued, “It’s small moves inside families…it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking efforts…to make a huge difference (in the dynamic of a family).”
The “Encanto” trio even tried to create antagonists outside the Madrigal family for the movie, but that didn’t even seem right. Instead, they leaned more into what happens when you don’t see your family members as family anymore.
They also said that each of the songs that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote original music for the film, were basically revelations from family member to family member. “It was all these separate elements that lined up to be able to tell the story of this young woman in this part of the world,” Howard added.
While the drama of this family and Mirabel is at the center of what can easily be a triggering film about generational trauma, it also is balanced out with another authentic part of the Colombian people – joy.
“Colombia is joy, and everyone here is full of joy and life,” Bush said.” “And so you have to show both (sad tenseness and unconditional joy); you can’t show one without the other.”
With the movie about to release in theaters, showing both the complicated and still hopeful journey of life is something that the filmmakers resonate with given the circumstances of 2020.
Bush spoke to the hundreds of people who worked on the movie (mostly remotely due to COVID-19) and said that their movie unknowingly met a cultural moment. “[Those people] spoke to the notion that we really don’t see each other that clearly…a rush to judgement, while at the same time, there’s a universality in that we all feel very much alone. It’s stories like these about seeing each other for who we are and loving in response is something that we’ll need to have forever.”
Smith added, “Even before the events of last year, this movie was always about [challenging] the one-dimensional character or persona, and engaging the complexity and empathy of relating to others. And in a polarizing time, this all feels very important now.”
Howard invoked and focused his answer on the central part of family trauma embedded in “Encanto,” saying that our understanding of the world begins within our own homes. “There’s not always an understanding of what decisions individual members of your family make. We are beings that think and feel and respond to the information that we have in front of us.”
He added, “And while we don’t have to agree, we do have to wrestle with everything we bring to ourselves and each other. Sometimes a lot of good stuff comes from the challenges.”
“Encanto” comes to theaters on November 24, 2021, and Disney+ at a later date.
Our special thanks to Charise Castro Smith, Jared Bush, and Byron Howard for contributing to this story.
Details (from IMDB) –
Runtime: 99 minutes
Rating: PG for some thematic elements and mild peril
All reviews are personal opinions and may not reflect the attitudes of other writers for DisneyExaminer.com unless stated otherwise.
These films have been screened prior to the release date for review purposes and therefore are viewed without charge courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios/The Walt Disney Studios.