Walt Disney Animation Studios released its first animated feature in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 84 years later, the studio will release its 60th animated feature on November 24th with Encanto. In advance of the film’s release, I had the honor of speaking to the directors and writers of the film about the legacy of Disney animation, Disney’s first Latinx animated musical film, and why audiences are going to love every detail they crammed in. Here’s what I learned from Director Byron Howard, Director/Writer Jared Bush, and Co-Director/Writer Charise Castro Smith.
Alex: Where did the idea for Encanto come from?
Jared Bush: Well, actually, it's almost five years to the week that we began. Byron and I, even as we were finishing up Zootopia, we love musicals. We're super musical fans and we're like, the next movie we work on has to be musical. And I was just finishing writing up on Moana where I was working with Lin-Manuel. And he was like, I want to do the definitive Latin American Disney musical. And we're like, these all come together perfectly. And so, early on, we started talking about, of course, what do we all have in common? What are we emotionally connected to? And we all had these somewhat crazy dysfunctional, large extended families. And we never tried to put that on screen before. So, a lot of our earlier conversations were about families, extended families. And as we started talking about it, we honestly started looking at our own families and realizing how little we knew them. We have these assumptions about our family members, people that we know, obviously love, that we've grown up with, but you kind of only see one side of them. And as we started realizing how universal that was, that we don't really see our families. And honestly, our families don't really know us that well, we realize that not only do we all have that in common, but everybody does. And that was really the thing that set our movie off, was wanting to tell the story where we could push into different perspectives, and hopefully expand the way that we see each other.
Charise Castro Smith: It was really just delving into our families' relationships and trying to really embrace the complexity of family and how we can get stuck in one way of seeing someone when everyone contains multitudes. So I think that was really at the heart of it.
Byron Howard: Just to add, I think the specificity of Colombia and Colombian families, and the fact that everything that led us to that country and its culture and being so inspired by it, it was such an epiphany for us to see that was this crossroads of everything in Latin America that we really wanted to try to represent, culture and dance and diversity and tradition and food. So it's 90-minutes, it's not a long time to try to represent so, so much, especially in a country as diverse as Colombia. But man, I got to say, we were so charged up to try to do our best to bring that to the screen.
Alex: Speaking of that, you guys got to go to Colombia in 2018, but I'm guessing the typical amount of research trips got a little hindered by things going on in the world. So I was curious, Charise, did you get to join them for any of the Colombia research trips? But also with the culture trust that you guys built around Encanto specifically, I was curious to know, you probably didn't get to have as many face-to-face meetings as you normally would. But did advancements in telecommunication help or hinder the process of presenting each iteration of the film to your culture trust representatives?
Charise Castro Smith: So yes to a lot of those questions… I was scheduled to go to Colombia in the middle of March 2020. So, I think you can assume how that went. So sadly, no, I didn't get to go, but as you said, yes, our Colombian cultural trust was a humongous part of making this movie… Just partnered with us at every step, truly. And it wasn't just some watching screenings. Honestly, we were checking in with them pretty much every week, especially Juan Rendon and Natalie Osma, they were really, really close collaborators with us on this film. I think they were with Jared and Byron from the very beginning of it and were really closely helping us every step of the way. But yeah, we absolutely could not have made this film without all of the Colombian cultural trust input and help along the way.
Jared Bush: Yeah. One thing I'd add to that is, something that we're so lucky to have is, we started talking to members of Disney Animation itself early on, this group we call the Familia group, right when the movie started. And these are very informal lunch meetings, hanging out, talking about family, talking about traditions, holidays, not story specifics. So we got to know each other really, really well. I'd say, likewise, we met a lot of amazing people on our trip to Colombia. Alejandra Espinoza, who is one of our guides, turned out to be such a good friend of ours. And I think, because we had made these connections with some truly amazing people, that as everything shifted to being online, into being Zoom and not in-person, we actually really knew each other really well at that point. And so we had a bit of shorthand with each other and a trust with each other. And then as that group started to grow and everyone was talking to each other, I think that that vibe persisted throughout the entire five years. I don't know, honestly, if we'd begun in quarantine if it would have felt the same. But we did have that year and a half, two years upfront where we all got to know each other really, really well on a personal level before it began.
Alex: What are some of the specific elements of Colombian culture that people who aren't familiar with it will be exposed to through the story of Encanto, and all the incredible artistry that goes into these films?
Byron Howard: My gosh. Honestly, the film is packed with it. The incredible thing, I think, once we went to Colombia, it is really like many countries in one. And the fact that our friends who were speaking to us about their specific regions, they're very proud of that. And there's actually great chemistry between certain regions, like Juan and Natalie are great friends who worked with us on the film. Juan is from Cali, which is coastal. And Natalie is from Bogota, which is almost like Portland. It's like way, way up in the mountains. I think it might even be higher than Machu Picchu. So it's very rainy there and people are dressed up a little bit. And then the coastal folks are more kind of relaxed and chill. And so the chemistry between the two of them is just hilarious. And so we really wanted to try to get that into the film as well, and be as specific with every family member as we possibly could. So what I was talking about, you'll see with Felix and Agustin, the dads. Felix is a Costeno, he is a coastal guy, very much the biggest personality in the room. Great, open personality, fun-loving. And then Agustin is a bit more buttoned-up. He looks not exactly at home in the middle of this very rural mountain town. He gets hurt a lot, which is fortunate that he's actually married to the town doctor Julieta, whose food heals. We really wanted to lean into that so I'd say just even in the personalities of the characters, we wanted to be very specific. Of course, there's everything, like architecture and fabric and embroidery and crazy amounts of detail that our team did. Like it was really a five-year learning experience for us and for our teams. And they were on Zoom constantly with our Colombian cultural trust and with our Familia group inside the studio, talking about the family. Really, it's one of the most specific movies that we've ever made, and just seeing it on the big screen, like Jared and I and Charise were in the theater together, we were marveling at just seeing Mirabel's embroidery and the fabric, and just the care that every team took to really represent that. So it is packed wall-to-wall with just details. And it just adds up to something very beautiful and very real and immersive.
Alex: Charise, this is your first project with Walt Disney Animation Studios. I believe it's also your first family-focused project as a writer, and also your first time as a co-director. I was curious to know, from your paranormal and horror background, how did some of those skills help lend themselves to your work on Encanto?
Charise Castro Smith: So yes, Haunting of Hill House and Encanto, what?
Byron Howard: Both have houses in it.
Charise Castro Smith: They're both houses. No, but I think the way I think about it is that I love working in genre and I love working in stories that are emotionally grounded and really character-driven and character-based and relationship-driven, but then have some kind of cool oomph that puts it over the top. And so, in the past, I've worked a lot in horror and supernatural stuff. And when this project came along, I was really, really drawn to being able to be a part of the first Disney Latinx musical. And then also it sort of spoke to the thing I love to do, which is really let the characters lead, but have some kind of extraordinary beautiful, and in this case, magical realism inspired element to the storytelling.
Alex: Byron, you directed the studio’s 50th animated feature Tangled and are now directing the 60th film Encanto. How do both of these films carry on the tradition that Walt Disney started with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?
Byron Howard: I got very lucky with the rhythm of that. It was a big deal for me to be associated with the 50th back then. And I think for Tangled, that was the culmination. I'm a big Disney geek from way back. I have a lot of pixie dust in my blood. And I was a lot younger at the time. Also, to be able to work with Alan Menken was insane. Okay, Alan Menken is one part of it. Glen Keane, another part of it. And on a fairytale, like a definitive fairytale that was well known for a long time and had been on Walt's list since the 1950s, but there had never been an approach that really landed on it, that was pretty remarkable for me. That was also my first musical. And to look at that film now, which is essentially a love story, a buddy movie, it's a very tiny central cast, and look at where we've come in the last 10 films to this enormous, beautiful, diverse family with a dozen people. With songs, back in Tangled, which are more sort of Disney traditional, to what Lin has created for this film, where there's reggaeton, there's vallenato, there are songs that… “Dos Oruguitas” is a beautiful song that he wrote for the film, which he said he wanted to make it feel like the song had been around for a hundred years and would be sung on the street with families. It so feels like a piece of amazing history, but it's so personal to the Madrigals. And I'm so excited about how our films have gotten more specific, more diverse. We're telling new stories. And then, even for me, I would say, like five years ago, I knew so little about what Colombia truly is, and I continue to learn more and more. And even, the more people we meet, as they're seeing the film and bringing their own experiences, it's just a real eye-opener. I'm so excited about the health of the studio, about where animation is going, the fact that more people, even beyond Disney, are doing animation. It's a terrific time. So I'm glad I can have a little bit of a perspective on it, having been around for a little while, but it's remarkably rewarding.
Alex: Jared and Byron, you’re both reuniting as directors on this film after Zootopia, which has become even more culturally significant since its release. With Encanto and the themes of this film, do you foresee any cultural touchstone moments?
Jared Bush: I think that, throughout history, dysfunctional families are a staple. So I'm guessing ten years from now, that conversation will still be there. For all of us, I think that the goal is always to tell a story that really resonates with us personally. And as we really got into it, feeling like we're all dealing with this, whether it is your own crazy family or your friends around you or your community. I think this notion that… I think it's very human to make quick judgments. At the same time, say but they don't see me. Those are in conflict. So I think that the idea that we need to try to see each other better, but we also need to be vulnerable enough to let others see us as well, is something that is never going to go away. I think it's part of the human condition. So I'd say I certainly hope that in five years… People are still not going to be able to get Lin's songs out of n their head. That would be one of my predictions. But yeah, I think the great thing is that we're always going to want to know our families better, whether it's now or five years or ten years.
Alex: Encanto was animated remotely, but you got to get together for a Hollywood premiere at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre. What was it like getting to be there together in person with the cast, crew, and animation team to celebrate all the hard work that you've done over the past five years?
Charise Castro Smith: It was amazing, but slightly incomplete because our wonderful beloved sweet Byron wasn't able to attend. So it was bittersweet because of that, but I will say that it was like… I don't know what I was expecting, but it was really special to be there. It was really just extraordinary to be there with the whole cast and sit in the theater and just watch it with them and hear them cheer for each other's songs. And it was just really, really a special, wonderful night to just celebrate this movie and to have everyone together in one space, because we were so scattered throughout the making of this movie. So it was really awesome.
Jared Bush: I would second that. I think that one of the things that's very unusual with this movie is we do have such a large cast. Even when it's not pandemic times, typically we're traveling to our actors. We're recording with them. We're hanging out with them in the rooms with them where they're coming to Burbank. This movie was not that. Maria Cecilia Botero recorded everything exclusively in Colombia, some of our other cast did as well, or they’d be in other parts of the world. So on top of all that, to actually hang out with this family for the very first time, it was the first time many of them had also been meeting in person. So I don't know that I could call it a family reunion because we'd never been together at all, but it's kind of what it felt like because we kind of all knew each other. And I would say that it was this, I think, as Charise was saying, it felt very warm and very personal. It really felt, like to your point, like you could hear people cheering for each other's songs and it felt so real and honest, and I loved it. I would say that also for our teams, especially, we didn't get to see this movie on the big screen very much over the course of making it. Largely, we were watching it on our laptops, and the difference when you go and see it huge. There's so many people that work so hard to make all of those beautiful things, all those specific things, the amount of care put into every single frame. When you see it on the big screen, it's mind-blowing. So I think to have almost everyone there see that really hard work, let them hear that celebration as well, because that's so important and something that we've been sort of siloed away from. It was, I think, as Charise was saying, obviously a moment you never forget, but it was so joyous and wonderful. I loved being there.
Byron Howard: Yeah. And I'll say, even though I couldn't attend in person, these guys were very good about FaceTiming me in so I could see the group together and what Jared was talking about is really remarkable. It's sort of like, the movie did something very incredible, really. It was like it created this family from scratch. Like these dozen people are now linked from now until the end of time, like that they are the Madrigal family. And I think, as we go into the future, there'll be more events where we're all together. But I think, because we just spend so much time together, especially us with each individual cast member, but I think each of them now feels like they can call each other up. They probably think like, that person is as related to me as someone in my biological family. And man, I have to say, just the emotion and the joy and the exuberance, that I could even sense from a distance, was really palpable. And I think that because we've fallen in love with each of the family members and each of our cast individually, so we're so happy to see them together. And hopefully it'll be many, many more times in the future when we can be together in person.
Alex: For my last question, can you give me any hints as to what kind of Easter Eggs Disney fans should be looking for?
Jared Bush: Well, I think the great secret of those Easter Eggs are that the teams hide them from us as well. So we don't have a list of all the great Easter Eggs. We'll watch and be like, wait a minute, you put that in there. I'd say, definitely there are some hidden Mickeys. Definitely, there are some homages to things in the past. I'd say, take a look around Isabela's song, you might find something in there. But I will say that I will be the first to watch this a thousand times to see all of those things and see what was snuck in there. That's one of my favorite things.
Alex: Thank you so much. Congratulations again on the release of Encanto, the 60th animated film from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Experience Disney’s Encanto starting November 24th only in theaters.
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).