Disney’s Encanto is rooted deep in the culture of Colombia, with a title that means “Place of enchantment.” Like most films from Walt Disney Animation Studios, a research trip not only helped influence the design of the film, but also the story. During a press event to promote the film, directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush talked about the trip they took in 2018, accompanied by songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father Luis.
“We visited Bogota, Cartagena, small towns like Barichara, Salento-Salento and Palenque, and stunning natural landmarks like the Cocora Valley,” Byron Howard explained about the specific locations their travels took them. It’s in these places that they learned about Encantos. “These are all over Latin America, usually in areas of natural wonder,” Byron Howard revealed. “Our friends in Colombia told us that magic happens in these places and always has. But not European magic, not wizards and wands, but magic tied to emotion and part of a tradition called magical realism.”
Byron and Jared previously collaborated together on Zootopia and were both yearning to make a musical for their next project. With Lin-Manuel Miranda on board, he suggested a Latinx story, which is how they ended up taking that trip to Colombia. But the directors soon realized they would need a partner on the journey, someone more specialized in magical realism, and Charise Castro Smith joined the team as writer and co-director.
“We really wanna thank our Colombian Cultural Trust, who were there with us throughout the making of this film, from the very beginning until the end,” Charise Castro Smith shared, who was planning to visit Colombia on a planned research trip that was canceled due to the pandemic. As with Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, a culture trust of experts in music, anthropology, culture, architecture, botany, and many more disciplines were brought in to help infuse the world of Encanto with authenticity. In addition to the Colombian Cultural Trust, the team established an internal Familia Group at Walt Disney Animation Studios. “Our Familia Group was open to anyone at the studio who wanted to join. It was a group of artists and studio employees called Familia, and it became a tremendously helpful and great source of inspiration and learning… Together, before we had a script or a story, we talked about things like family, our upbringing, and what we hoped for a film that found inspiration in Latin America. So the Familia Group also reviewed early versions of the script, and have been an instrumental, huge, helpful part of every screening.”
Associate Production Designer Lorelay Bové was tasked with visually bringing the diverse cultures of Colombia visually to the screen. “Visually, our goal was to organize the families through a distinct color palette so that the audience would be able to understand who is who and kind of divide the families in two,” she shared about how the large cast is distinct. Mirabel is the daughter of Julieta and Agustin and their side of the family Madrigal wears jewel tones, while Pepa and Felix’s side wear warmer colors. Subtle details that audiences might miss are things like the herbs unique to Colombia that Julieta always has in her pockets, which she puts in her food to heal people. Agustin, who married into the family, comes from Bogota and wears a darker three-piece suit to represent his three daughters.
“Since the beginning, we had the idea for this film to have a handcrafted feel since it's in a place where there's so many crafts and beautiful art, we wanted to have everything handmade,” Lorelay Bové added about the detailed embroidery work on the costumes, best-seen on the big screen. “We had an idea that Mirabel would do embroidery in her costume, which was kind of fun and not perfect, sort of like what a teenager would do in a diary… Our Costume Design Lead came up with this beautiful iconography of each member of the house that Mirabel would embroider into her skirt and costume.”
Kai Martinez served as a Production Designer on the film, who also brought her own cultural heritage to the project. “One of the biggest joys that I got working on this film was to be able to not only share my experience as a Colombian American woman and my family and talk about my home, my culture, and really dive into that, was I really appreciated the interest and the desire to learn from the whole production team, the animation team,” Kai shared. “We had meetings and the questions and the desire to create an authentic feel, an authentic story, that went beyond what I could've imagined being a part of this beautiful film.”
Having Kai’s home movies and anecdotes proved invaluable to Kira Lehtomaki, one of the Heads of Animation on the film. “In this time of the pandemic there were so many things that we wanted to go out and do with research,” Kira explained. “Having Byron and Jared got to go to Colombia early on, and that was such a blessing to have that. But, you know, so many of us wanted to go to Colombia and really dive into this research, but we weren't able to. So Kai graciously brought a bit of Colombia to us. And the bonus was that we got to see it come through her lens and have her personal perspective on it. And she got to point out to us what was important and what we should be noticing. So that was so invaluable, and it was also really a lot of fun.”
You don’t have to board a plane or boat to get to this place of enchantment in Disney’s Encanto, premiering exclusively in theaters on November 24th.
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).