How Two White Directors Made Encanto, Disney's Musical Love Letter To Colombia

Walt Disney Animation Studios has a major milestone coming up later this year with "Encanto" — it's the 60th feature from the most iconic arm of the Disney empire. It also represents new territory for the studio, as they are branching out to bring the South American nation of Colombia to life on the big screen, a first for a major animated movie. "Zootopia" directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush headed up the project, alongside "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote songs for the film. So, how is it that two white guys decided that they were the right people to tackle a story heavily rooted in Colombian culture? I wanted to find out.

I recently spoke with both Howard and Bush, as well as writer/co-director Charise Castro Smith, ahead of "Encanto" hitting theaters in November. I asked them about the elephant in the room, so to speak. I was curious about how this came about, and here's what Howard had to say about it:

"Early on, I think we knew that, in teaming up with Lin-[Manuel Miranda], Lin was very keen to do a movie set in Latin America, but we had to look for, what do we have in common? And this idea of extended families, the universality of everyone has a family, everyone likely does not understand their family, and likely their family does not completely understand them. Having something universal that we can all sink our teeth into, no matter where we come from was really critical. For me, it's amazing because every time we jump into a new film, it's a chance for me to learn. I think this entire four-year process has been an incredible learning [process] for myself. Starting in the Colombian research trip with Lin, seeing it grow, Cherise joining the team, the team rallying around this central idea, and staying true to that true north, has made an incredible difference."

Surrounding Encanto With the Right People

Before I even asked the question, everything I had seen from the upcoming animated flick (roughly 30 minutes of footage) led me to believe these guys did indeed do a heck of a job. This is largely because they took conscious measures to surround themselves with a diverse group of talent at every level of the production. That starts with hiring Smith to pen the screenplay, and later bringing her on board as a co-director.

They also put together the "Colombian Cultural Trust," which was filled with journalists, anthropologists, botanists, and architects to help ensure everything felt authentic. This was in addition to the "Familia" group — people from all walks of the Disney ranks that helped guide the process with creative input. So, yes. It is two white guys that helped get this thing going. But the film is the product of a whole team of diverse individuals that, in my early estimation, did painstakingly detailed work to try and get this right.

Disney's "Encanto" hits theaters on November 24, 2021.

Walt Disney Animation Studios' "Encanto" tells the tale of an extraordinary family, the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift from super strength to the power to heal—every child except one, Mirabel (voice of Stephanie Beatriz). But when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is in danger, Mirabel decides that she, the only ordinary Madrigal, might just be her exceptional family's last hope.