Encanto Directors Explain the Disney Movie's Magical Origins

Directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush and co-director Charise Castro Smith walk TheWrap through the 5-year process of getting the film made

Photo: Disney

“Encanto” is Disney’s latest animated miracle, a vibrantly colored musical fantasia (featuring new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda) about a very special family in Colombia blessed with magical gifts. It both speaks to themes persistent in the Disney Animation canon (how goodness trumps any external superpower and the importance of family) with a more modern magical realist sensibility that eschews the familiar for the unexpected (our lead character, Mirabel, doesn’t go on a quest or even leave the house). It’s enough to make you wonder where this wild concept came from.

Luckily, we sat down with directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush and co-director Charise Castro Smith, who explained where “Encanto” was born.

“Five years ago this week, we started talking about this movie crazily. It all just goes by in a blink of an eye, but Jared had come off of ‘Moana’ with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Jared and I had worked on ‘Zootopia’ of course, together, we love working together and we wanted to do a musical. We just knew it’s time,” Howard explained. According to Howard, Miranda was keen on doing “a definitive Latin American Disney musical.” While they didn’t know where it would be set initially, Howard, Bush and Miranda knew that it would be centered around an extended family – something that all three of them had in common.

“All of these signs started pointing toward Columbia, the sort of crossroads of Latin America, where everything kind of comes together, culture, ethnicity, music, food,” Howard explained. “It just seemed the place to go, and that’s what pointed us there in the first place. So that’s the early genesis, but it just happened so long ago, but it just, it came together very quickly.”

Mirabel (voiced by the wonderful Stephanie Beatriz) is the only family member in the Madrigal brood who isn’t given a magical gift (one of her sisters can communicate with plants, the other has super-strength). As it turns out, the magic part of “Encanto” came later. First, there was the idea of the extended family that they all agreed on. And then it was about defining who those family members were.

“We got excited about the family archetypes early on,” Bush said. “Like the left out one or the golden child or the one who bears all the responsibility or the mom who heals with her food. But we talked about it actually purely on in sort of reality-based. We didn’t get to magic right away.”

At one point during the development process Bush turned to Castro Smith and said, “The movie has to work if this family has no magic.” Instead, filmmakers focused on “family dynamics that hopefully we can all relate to.”

This was a principal that guided them throughout production on “Encanto.”

“Several times over the course of making the movie, we would do a hard stop look at it and ask, ‘If there’s no magic, do these pieces add up correctly?’ and then go back in,” Bush said.

Of course, the magic enabled the filmmakers to answer another question (according to Bush): “Why is this movie animated?”

“The idea of bringing in these gifts, telling the story inspired by magical realism, allowed it to elevate, allowed us to do something visually that only animation could do,” Bush said. “And that was the really exciting plus part. But that foundation in true family dynamics was the most important thing.”

Another key component of bringing the family together was Castro Smith, a playwright, actor, and writer (on such darkly tinged shows as “The Exorcist” and “The Haunting of Hill House”), who was new to the oversized world of animation. They approached her three years ago (Byron told TheWrap later that he was particularly enamored with her play “Feathers and Teeth,” about a gaggle of creepy monsters living underneath the floorboards of a family home) after working on the movie for a couple of years. According to Casto Smith, Howard and Bush came to her with a simple pitch, telling her, “We’re making the first Disney, Latinx musical about like an awkward 14-year-old girl with no magical superpowers.”

“And I was like, ‘Well, having been an awkward 14-year-old girl with no superpowers, I think I’m on board,’” Castro Smith said.

Initially, she was just a writer on the project, working on the basic concept that the filmmakers had concocted. But a year into the process they asked her to come aboard as a co-director.

“I think when I joined, Jared and I did a lot of work on the characters and really just delving into the story and then going through the whole Disney development process of writing the screenplay 1700 times,” Castro Smith said.

It was at this point that, like in any rambunctious family, Howard interjected, saying that Castro Smith was being “too humble.”

“When she came in, she created the foundation, this backstory of Abuela Alma, that the entire movie sits on,” Howard said, beaming. “The idea of displaced people, the idea that Abuela Alma lost her husband and that’s underneath this whole thing. She always leaves that part out — that the most fundamental important thing in the entire movie is what she created. And that really set the tone for the entire thing. So that’s what she did.” Well then.

Castro Smith also helped in a key area of the movie: the musical numbers. Bush admitted that it was arguably the most challenging aspect of the film’s production.

“We’ve never attempted choreography on this scale before,” Bush said.

What made them particularly challenging was how tied into each of the 12 main characters they were; when the characters moved they were expressing themselves as if they were unfurling a page of dialogue. When they saw initial choreography tests, done by the talented choreographers Jamal Sims and Kai Martinez, they decided to add more choreography. And the complexity grew. And on the filmmaking side, Castro Smith helped bring those to life, turning the songs from Miranda into moments that stood as next-level Disney classics.

“From the beginning, Lin-Manuel really had some great instincts in terms of ensemble numbers. He really wanted to make a big set piece in the middle of the movie, which turned into ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno,’ which is so much fun and I love that it has like, the entire family together,” Castro Smith said. “And then ‘All of You.’ our final number the way that he’s able to just blend all of the different melodies of all of the different characters and put this whole puzzle together.” And, yes, a word of warning, you will be sobbing through many of these numbers (thankfully your mask will hide some of your tears).

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