Disney’s next animated feature, Encanto, has a lot of what you’d expect from the studio. It’s bright and colorful, telling the story of a magical family living in the mountains of Colombia, most of whom have been blessed with superpowers. It’s even a musical with songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But despite the familiar fantasy trappings, it explores new territory for Disney: the narrative tradition of magical realism. “The magic is born out of a human need or drive,” Encanto co-writer and co-director Charise Castro Smith tells The Verge. “It’s all generated by relationships and what these characters are going through.”
Encanto tells the story of the Madrigal family, who lives in a magical home and go through a very unique experience at the age of five: they’re each granted a special power tied to their personality. Isabela, the favorite child, makes flowers sprout wherever she goes; Luisa, the rock of the family, has strength like The Hulk. The story centers on 15-year-old Mirabel, the only one who wasn’t bestowed with a magical gift. According to co-writer and director Jared Bush, the goal with each character was to create a familiar familial archetype first, and then figure out what power suited them best. “We were constantly making sure that we didn’t push too far into superhero versus relatable, human archetypes,” he says.
This idea of being relatable and grounded in reality is central to what Encanto is — despite the fact that it’s about a superpowered family living in a magical house. That’s where the concept of magical realism comes into play. Though Charise Castro admits that “magical realism can mean lots of different things to lots of different people,” the core conceit is that having a more grounded or realistic world can heighten those magical or supernatural elements.
“It absolutely has to be grounded; otherwise, it’s pure fantasy, where anything can be happening at any time,” says Bush. “I think the notion of why this family was given a miracle, how that happened, why it’s important; those have to be based, at least in our story, on something that is very concrete and feels visceral and emotional. That allows you to then have the contrast of the whimsy and the fun and this amazing fantasy that happens. But you have to have both of those pieces to function correctly.”
Typically magical realism gets dark and gritty; it’s something Charise Castro has plenty of experience with, having previously worked as a producer and writer on The Haunting of Hill House. But it takes on a slightly new tone in an animated Disney musical. It was “different,” Charise Castro says of the process, but she believes that this kind of fantasy framing also helps make Encanto feel distinct from past Disney features.
“This movie is really bright and colorful, and funny and wonderful, but it does have some more grounded, different themes than traditional Disney movies,” she says. “There are some more challenging human elements to this movie. We did try to keep in mind that it is a tradition that is born out of the need to tell tall tales, sometimes about difficult things. This movie is not devoid of that.”
In order to make it work, one of the things the creative team had to do was cut lots of ideas that might be too outlandish for the movie’s tone. One early idea involved a party animal-type character who created a scene wherever he went; balloons would mysteriously appear when he walked into a room. “This is probably not a fit for this movie,” director Byron Howard admits. “But it was hilarious for about two weeks.” Meanwhile, an earlier version of the super-strong Luisa was indestructible and would occasionally travel large distances by being shot out of a cannon.
“We’ve actually created eight different versions of this movie internally, as we progressed and honed things,” says Howard. “Sometimes we try things, and it breaks it. But I think the fact that we were willing to push those boundaries was great because we always wanted it to be heavily inspired by magical realism, but we also knew that it had to be light and entertaining sometimes.”
According to Bush, this iterative form of moviemaking is integral to the studio’s process, even if it requires lots of time — and tossing away plenty of ideas. “To have the luxury of time to really invest in ideas that might initially sound nuts is, I think, one of the hallmarks of our process at Disney Animation,” he explains. “Because sometimes you’ll find something spectacular, and you’ll hold on to it.”
Encanto is due to hit theaters on November 24th.