In recent years, Disney Animation increasingly has turned to cultures that the nearly-century-old studio seldom has explored to tell stories more representative of the real world, even as they are infused with Disney’s signature magic. Moana was rooted in Polynesian mythology, Raya and the Last Dragon grounded its inspiration in Southeast Asian folklore and, now, Encanto finds its setting in South America.
A magical realist ode to unconditional love and family values forged in hardship, the animated film centers on the Madrigal clan — proud Colombians who, due to a miracle, live in an enchanted house set in a fairy-tale landscape. Each member of the family has been blessed with an exceptional gift, save for Mirabel (voiced by Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz), whom audiences might view as the sharpest of the bunch but is not considered special by the family matriarch, Abuela Alma (voiced by Colombian television veteran María Cecilia Botero and sung by In the Heights‘ Olga Merediz), and is therefore taken for granted.
Disney cast talent with Colombian roots to give voice to the Madrigals. Beatriz’s father is Colombian, and John Leguizamo, who was born in the country’s capital of Bogota, plays her character’s uncle Bruno. Meanwhile, Wilmer Valderrama, who voices Mirabel’s father, Agustín, spent time as a child in Colombia, where his mother is from.
Other Latino luminaries rounded out the crew behind the scenes, starting with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent. The songs he wrote were orchestrated and arranged by composer Germaine Franco, while fellow Chicana Yvett Merino is a producer on the film.
“I just jumped at the opportunity to work on this because it’s the first Latinx Disney musical,” says co-director and co-screenwriter Charise Castro Smith, a first-generation Cuban American. “When I was growing up, nothing like that existed, and so to be part of the team that brought that into the world was something I knew I had to do.”
THR‘s Raising Our Voices spotlights the voice cast and crew of Encanto for their spellbinding musical celebration of Colombian culture, family values and what makes each individual special.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Raising Our Voices series, presented by Walmart, focuses on emerging artisans from backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood. The featured craftspeople have been selected by THR editors from 2021’s most critically acclaimed films.
CHARISE CASTRO SMITH
When Encanto directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush pitched Castro Smith the concept of the film — about the one person in a Colombian family who doesn’t possess magical powers — the story immediately resonated with her on multiple levels.
“Immediately my heart sort of exploded,” recalls Castro Smith. “I related so much to that feeling of being a young teenager and not knowing what your value is, not knowing where you belong in the world, figuring out how you fit in with other people. I think it’s a universal experience, this moment of questioning and forging identity.”
The playwright — who would end up co-directing under Howard and Bush as well as co-writing the screenplay with the latter (she considers Miranda “our third screenwriter”) — also saw a bit of her grandfather in the Madrigal family matriarch. Just as Abuela Alma is escaping internal strife from Colombia’s warring factions at the beginning of Encanto, Castro Smith’s own grandparents and mother fled the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba. Her grandfather, an engineer in Havana, became a dishwasher in Queens, eventually building up an import/export business in Miami, where Castro Smith was born. But the experience left scars, which she calls the “immigrant scarcity mentality,” among her family.
“I was the first person to leave home to go to school,” says Castro Smith, recalling the “tricky moment” when she broke the news that she had decided to study theater instead of law. “I think my grandfather in particular was like, ‘You’re going to either be president or you’re going to cure cancer. Choose one.’ I was like, ‘What if I write plays?’ “
Castro Smith started out as an actor at Brown, where she double majored in theater and public policy (“a nod to the lawyer dreams in my family,” she says). But it wasn’t until her mid-20s in grad school at Yale Drama that she wrote her first play, Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen]. The campus production attracted the attention of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), who took Castro Smith under her wing.
“Because of her, I was able to take some playwriting classes at Yale,” says the younger woman. “She was the person who helped me get my first production, Boomcracklefly, at the Milagro Theatre in Portland. And she was the person who really patted me on the shoulder and sent me on my way as a writer.”
Castro Smith eventually would end up in television, writing for Lifetime’s Devious Maids, Fox’s The Exorcist and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, experiencing her share of racial bias along the way. “There have been situations throughout my career in Hollywood that were challenging, but I do try to keep perspective,” she says, acknowledging that “as a lighter-skinned Latina who can a lot of times pass … my experience is not nearly intense as people who are not.”
It was Castro Smith’s work as a playwright that prompted that fateful meeting with Howard and Bush, and the trio took a divide-and-conquer approach to their collective duties on Encanto.
“One of us would be recording the actors; another in the editorial room; another directing a snippet of animation,” says Castro Smith, the first Latina to receive a directing credit on a Disney animated feature (and just the second woman to do so). “I was really interested in making sure the story functioned as if there was no magic in it whatsoever — that the bones of the story were functioning on a human level as well.”
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“I always call these animated films tiny little miracles,” says Merino, who produced Encanto with Clark Spencer. “At peak, we probably had close to 500 artists working [with a total of 800 crew]. And on top of that, we did not start production — not one frame of this film — until the summer of 2020, so we did it all from home over Zoom during the pandemic.”
As a 25-year Disney Animation Studios employee, Merino isn’t exactly a novice, although her path to producer wasn’t preordained. After growing up in the predominantly Hispanic south L.A. city of Norwalk, Merino studied sociology at UC Santa Barbara. “My dad always jokes that he barely finished high school, but his dream and want was for his four girls to go to college,” says Merino, whose machinist father and office manager mother both hail from Mexico.
After graduation, Merino became a social worker for a year, but something felt off. “I just had a moment where I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ” she says. She quit her job and started temping, eventually landing at Disney, where she stayed. Within a few years, she had worked her way up to administrative manager in the technology department, and when that felt played out, she had a fateful meeting with producer Roy Conli, who was working on Tangled.
“I need somebody to manage my editing department,” he told her. “I think you’d be really good at it.”
Becoming a production manager finally brought Merino’s career path into sharp focus. “You work closely with story and see how it all comes together,” she explains. “You work with the actors and the voice recordings. It’s such a great place to understand from the very beginning through the very end, when you’re finalizing the lighting shots.”
Even as she embraced the role of production manager, Merino went back to school to earn her MBA, which helped equip her for her big promotion with Encanto. “As you grow within production management on these films, your scope of what you look at gets larger and larger,” she explains. “So as the producer, I really partner with the directors [Howard and Bush, with whom she had previously worked on Tangled and Moana, respectively, as well as co-director Castro Smith] and make sure that we are making creative progress through all of the screenings that we do.”
With her first-ever producer credit, Merino is a long way (figuratively) from Norwalk, not exactly a showbiz breeding ground. “I didn’t know these jobs existed,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody who worked in entertainment, so it didn’t even really seem like a possibility.”
And to remedy her frequent feelings of isolation as the only Latina in the room, she started an employee resource group called Voces (“Voices”) at Disney, which grew to more than 400 members within the first two weeks. “Coming together in this group was really life-changing for me because I was able to actually connect with people who understood my references or grew up similar to how I did,” she says. “Or people who were just figuring it out.”
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Franco first caught the music bug at age 10 when her parents bought her a drum kit. “I was just immersed in Latin music,” says the composer of growing up in El Paso, Texas, just across the border from the northern Mexican city Ciudad Juárez, where her family would make Sunday pilgrimages. “We would go to the market, to restaurants, to the plaza. There was music everywhere back then: a trio, mariachis, Veracruzana music. It was part of the environment.”
By the time she attended Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she was visiting Mexico on her own, asking to sit in with local musicians whenever the opportunity arose. She eventually would balance her conservatory-leaning day job playing in major orchestras with late-night jam sessions with Latin bands.
“I had this calling to learn all of those rhythms,” says Franco, “and came to L.A. to study Cuban music with a [percussion] master named Luis Conte, who actually also plays on Encanto.”
A percussionist at heart and in practice (she composes on piano), Franco’s unorthodox approach to her craft involves laying down rhythms first, then employing an orchestra to play on top of those tracks. For Encanto‘s score, she took pains to use instruments indigenous to Colombia, which, to the untrained ear, might sound similar to those associated with Mexico.
“Because of the colonizers and the instruments they brought, there are very similar instruments, but the rhythms are different,” explains Franco. “So a Colombian accordion player would play it completely different than a Norteño [regional Mexican] player. And then the harp, they call it the arpa llanera, which sounds similar to the Veracruzana harp, but it’s different.”
When Mirabel visits the hidden lair of her Tío Bruno, the black sheep of the family, Franco says the filmmakers wanted a distinct sound, so she employed a flute specific to Colombia called the gaita, which “is meant to sound like a bird.”
Franco cites composer John Powell as the mentor who most helped her forge her career. After she became his assistant in 2013, they worked together on more than 35 features, including the Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda and Rio franchises, with Franco orchestrating, arranging, writing additional music and helping produce sessions. “He’s a genius composer,” says Franco. “He has this incredible thematic musical sense, and he’s a dear friend.”
She broke through on her own in 2015, when she scored Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance hit Dope. “I had to do it in a really short amount of time,” she says. “I was at Hans Zimmer’s studio, and it was the [film] that really made me grow up.”
Armed with a Disney budget for Encanto, Franco — who wrote additional music for composer Michael Giacchino on Pixar’s Coco — had the luxury of recruiting musicians who have helped or inspired her over the years. In addition to Conte, there’s Peruvian percussionist Alex Acuña; Uruguayan guitarist Federico Ramos, who played on Franco’s first score back in 1992; Venezuelan jazz keyboardist Otmaro Ruíz; Colombian reed player Justo Almario; Cuban bassist Carlitos Del Puerto; and Colombian vocalist Isa Mosquera, whom Franco spotted at a Hollywood Bowl concert headlined by Carlos Vives.
“In this field, we need more voices of many different cultures,” says Franco, the first Latina accepted into the Academy’s music branch and the first woman to score a Disney animated feature. “I want young women and people of color to say, ‘I can do it.’ “
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This story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.