Encanto, Disney’s newest animated movie due in November, is a lush musical about a magical family that lives in an enchanted house in the mountains of Colombia. Each of the Madrigals has been blessed with a magical gift — except for Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), the film’s quirky protagonist, who grew up with no obvious power. When the family’s gifts are threatened, Mirabel must figure out a way to save the magic, and discover her hidden family secrets. While a magical musical about a teenager with big dreams sounds like typical Disney fare, directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush, along with screenwriter and co-director Charise Castro Smith, see some subtle differences that make Encanto stand out.
From the beginning, the Encanto team wanted to evolve the Disney musical. During a press day for the film, Howard and Bush told Polygon about their time working on Zootopia, and how they brought more maturity into the familiar idea of a talking-animal fantasy. While each of them had worked on Disney musicals in the past, Encanto was their first musical together, and as musicians themselves, they wanted music to be a huge part of the narrative. That meant tapping Lin-Manuel Miranda and dabbling in different genres, like reggaeton and montuno, as well as incorporating dance moves from choreographers throughout the animation process. The different styles shaped the distinct personalities on screen.
“A lot of Disney musicals have been sort of like buddy movies: two people going on an adventure, learning things. And this movie is certainly very different than that,” says Smith. “There are 12 members of this family who all have their own personalities, preoccupations, journeys through the movie.”
Trying to make all those characters pop was a complicated process. Encanto is more of an ensemble musical than any previous Disney movie before, and that alone builds on what audiences normally associate with an animated Disney musical. It also means the filmmakers couldn’t waste any time on filler songs that don’t specifically affect the story.
“Every song speaks to character and is emotionally driven,” Bush explains to Polygon.
But the biggest — and subtlest — difference with Encanto is that instead of a typical Disney movie with magic, like Frozen, Moana, or Tangled, it is a work of magical realism.
The genre of magical realism has strong ties to Latin America, particularly Colombia. In literature, magical realism is distinct from fantasy stories with modern settings, because the magic and supernatural aren’t recognized as something magical or supernatural. Often, those elements are seamlessly integrated into the portrayal of the realistic, used to make a point about reality. Of course, it’s a little different in Encanto than it is in Gabriel García Márquez’s novels — the Madrigals recognize that the gifts they have are magical. But the difference between Encanto and other Disney movies is the way magic manifests, and how it’s used in the narrative.
“We really were interested in exploring what magic is that is born out of human emotion or human need, or great relationship stakes. It’s born out of human action and human relationship and want,” says Smith. “We really tried to use that as a guidepost as we were working on this movie, just this idea that the magic is not arbitrary. It’s not given to people by fairies, or something like that. It’s an extension of emotion and character, and it’s really born out of the people and who they are and what they want and what they need.”
The movie was originally crafted around the idea of family roles, with the magic added afterward. Bush says that while Disney movies do typically have magic, for Encanto, they didn’t want the magic to feel “forced or inorganic.” The movie’s setting sparked the idea of integrating magical realism and linking the magical gifts to the familial roles — but it was very important that the story work without the magic.
“This movie has to function if magic doesn’t exist. You could tell the story if there was zero magic in this family. That has to work as well,” Howard explains.
Encanto hits theaters on Nov. 24.