A version of this story about “Encanto” first appeared in the special animation section of Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
“Encanto,” Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 60th full-length feature, is many things: a meditation on loss, a wacky family comedy (centered around the Madrigals, each of them gifted with a special ability), very nearly a superhero tale and a moving, magical-realism-indebted portrait of Colombia in the first part of the 20th century. But above all other things, Disney’s “Encanto” is a musical.
With a handful of new songs by “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical numbers in “Encanto” explode and strobe with the kind of unmoored imagination that define the very best animated Disney musical moments. The movie takes place mostly inside an enchanted casita, but the musical numbers allow the audience to go anywhere. The most spectacular sequence is also the most subdued. It’s “Dos Oruguitas,” sung by Colombian singer Sebastián Yatra at a moment when young Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is learning the truth about her grandmother Alma (María Cecilia Botero) and the events that led to the family being blessed with these gifts. Sung completely in Spanish (a first for Miranda), the song will leave you breathless whether or not you know the language.
For the filmmaking team of director Byron Howard, co-writer/director Jared Bush and co-writer/co-director Charise Castro Smith, it was always a question of how this moment would be dramatized—and where it would land in the movie. At first it was squeezed into the prologue, but that decision was scrapped. “We needed to save it for this bit of storytelling toward the end of the film,” Howard said. “I get the impression from the character that she hasn’t really shared this with anybody. This is pain that people her age who were with her on the journey probably know, but she hasn’t spoken about it personally and that put us in a really great place to speak musically about it.”
“It took a while to figure out where that information belonged and how it would be most impactful. We always were asking ourselves questions about our families and how we relate to our families in this,” said Castro Smith, who thought about her own grandparents’ immigration to the United States from Cuba. “It really wasn’t until I was an adult when I actually stopped and thought, they had to leave everything they knew behind, come to a place where they didn’t speak the language and completely start from scratch with two small children. When I put myself in those shoes as an adult, I imagined the story totally differently.”
What made the sequence more complicated, was figuring out what purpose the sequence would serve for the overall narrative. “We really had to listen to what the movie was telling us it wanted to be,” Bush said. “We had many discussions where, when we got to that flashback, one question that kept coming up was, ‘What’s the new bit of plot that you discover in that backstory?’ Our story is somewhat of a mystery and you realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, she never told this important part of the story.’ And that changed everything.”
The other key component is the song from Miranda, who was, according to Howard, inspired by the visuals in the sequence Castro-Smith had written. “He told us his goal was to make this song sound like it had been around for 100 years,” Howard said. “Like you might hear it sung somewhere on the streets of Colombia, a folk song about love and loss that everybody knows. But also he did a beautiful job in weaving it into how it speaks personally to Alma and the formation of the Madrigal family, and what was lost in the sacrifice to make that happen.”