Before the setting was chosen, before even a single character was imagined, the filmmakers behind Walt Disney Animation Studios’ all-new original feature film Encanto had decided what the heart of their new film would be: family.
Encanto explores the compelling but complicated relationships within families, what it’s like to feel left out, to constantly think you’re not being seen, and the complicated emotions behind being part of a large family.
In celebration of Encanto’s release, The Koalition spoke to Byron Howard (Director), Jared Bush (Director / Co-Writer) and Charise Castro Smith (Co-Director / Co-Writer) about the importance and beauty of the movie’s Colombian setting, magical-realism and more.
Encanto tells the tale of an extraordinary family, the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift from super strength to the power to heal—every child except one, Mirabel. But when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is in danger, Mirabel decides that she, the only ordinary Madrigal, might just be her exceptional family’s last hope.
“We thought it would be amazing to tell a story about not just a pair of characters but a large extended family,” says director Byron Howard. “We wanted to celebrate and try to understand how the complex dynamics in big families really work. How well do we know our families? How well do they know us?”
Filmmakers knew from the get-go that their story would be about family, and they quickly focused on the role perspective plays in family dynamics. Director Jared Bush didn’t realize until well into adulthood he and his older sister had vastly different experiences growing up. “She was the first,” he says. “She felt pressured to continue gymnastics even though she wanted to pursue something different. But when I came along, my parents said, ‘Follow your dreams!’ I had a hard time reconciling that she was parented differently than I was until I realized it’s true now with my own three kids—only I’m the parent.”Adds director Byron Howard, “You can live with your parents, your brothers and sisters, and still not know what they go through. You don’t know all of their failures. You don’t know those things they don’t talk about. What are the family secrets that no one shares? That was fascinating to us.”
Behind the magic and the songs and the story of Encanto is relatable to everyone no matter the size of their family. Have you ever felt like people just didn’t understand you? Have you ever been too afraid your true self to others? Encanto is just that; a story about how the people who are closest to us, especially family members, don’t always see us—or fully understand us. And likewise, we don’t show people we love our whole selves for many reasons. Our story shows how one member of a family who feels the least seen can learn to see her whole family and ultimately herself.
At the age of 5, each of the Madrigal children receive their gifts during a special ceremony where a door is produced in their house that opens to an enchanted space that reveals their magical gift and therefore what their role will be in this family and how they’ll serve the community. story doesn’t just have characters with magical powers; the magic surrounds them. The house comes alive and is there to help and protect the family. The house is a character within the story. Magic abounds in Encanto.
Mirabel’s middle sister, Luisa, for example, is strong and powerful—the rock of the family, with the gift of super strength she uses to serve the community by relocating livestock, moving a building or rerouting a river. Isabela, Mirabel’s oldest sister, is the golden child of the family, the perfect one who’s been gifted with the ability to make plants grow and flowers bloom with every step she takes. Isabela’s grace and beauty enchant everyone except Mirabel who struggles to relate to her seemingly perfect persona and charmed life.
“Mirabel is all of us,” says Bush. “She is the ordinary member of her family among a bunch of extraordinary, magical people. Many of us can feel like we’re surrounded by superstars in our lives—we can feel intimidated; we can suffer from imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve achieved—there’s always someone who’s doing it bigger or better. Mirabel is that character we can all relate to.”
For 10 years, Mirabel has put a smile on her face and accepted on her fifth birthday she was not gifted with a magical power. Says co-director and screenwriter Charise Castro Smith. “Mirabel is a people pleaser—she feels this need to compensate for the fact she didn’t get a gift. She’s always told herself she’s OK with the dynamic in her family—but deep down, she’s not. She really wants to make a change. Her journey is to recognize her own intrinsic value and find her place within this family.”
An ‘Encanto’ is a term sometimes used for a place of magic and heightened spirituality, where magical or extraordinary things can happen. It’s a place of natural wonder where the landscape is infused with magical possibility.” But, says Howard, it’s not your everyday magic. “There’s magic in the world, but it’s grounded in reality,” he says.
“Magical realism, an inspiration for our film, is tied to real emotions, real events, and it’s thoughtful and layered. It’s not just an easy answer to your problems, it’s actually a reflection of the experiences you have every day whether you’re enjoying success or struggling. “Although many of the characters in Encanto have magical gifts, the filmmakers wanted to ground these gifts in reality.
Says Bush, “Our goal was that these characters would be just as compelling if we were to tell the story of this family without any gifts—if there 3wereno magic in the world. We wanted to have extensions of family archetypes that we could all relate to whether it’s the golden child, the rock of the family, the out caster drama queen. We just crank it up a little and make it come to life in magical ways.
Filmmakers were keen to create a backdrop for Mirabel’s story that was deeply inspired by Colombia. They sought experts in Colombian culture, anthropology, costume design, botany, music, language and architecture, to name a few—talking with them for hours about everything from native plants to the way houses would’ve been built at that time in that region. Once they started focusing on Colombia, they knew they wanted to aptly represent the area and the extraordinary culture. And the key to that would be building our Colombian Cultural Trust—a group of experts who lent their knowledge to the production about big details and small ones—from the right way to grill corn to the smallest detail of everyday life. “We do a lot of research.”
Set in Colombia, the film embraces the diversity, culture, people and, of course, the music that lives within its people and culture. The location, says Bush, was wholly driven by story. “Early on we knew that we wanted to tell a story about a large extended family with themes of perception and perspective,” says Bush. “So much of Latin America is a combination of Indigenous, African and European heritage. Colombia is considered a ‘crossroads of Latin America’—and we wanted to reflect that within one family, the Madrigals.”
In Colombia, every city, every place is vastly different and incredibly beautiful from the next—Cartagena, Bogotá, Barichara and San Basilio de Palenque—there’s a feeling of magic in many of these places. And it’s a different kind of magic seen in previous Disney films. The visit to Colombia deeply inspired the story. The look of the film embraces the vibrancy, vitality and sincerity the filmmakers found within the Colombian community.
Filmmakers even looked to their own families, as well as those they met in Colombia to pull together the diverse personalities that make up the Madrigals. Encato hilariously portrays the fun and craziness of a big family living together in one house and the characters reflect the diversity of Colombia and how different cultures intermingle in a unique way. Working with The Colombian Cultural Trust was instrumental in helping filmmakers add specific details that helped define the film’s culture and locale to create a breathtaking and rich movie.
To learn more about Encanto, check out our full interview below.