‘Encanto’ may be accurate, but can it carry a whole country?
By Laura Zornosa
“Encanto” wasn’t always set in Colombia.
The germ of the idea for the Disney feature can be traced to 2016, when “Encanto” directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard were still working on “Zootopia.” They knew they wanted to tell a story about family — and how family members can struggle to truly see one another. Then they asked: Where should this movie take place?
Enter Natalie Osma and Juan Rendon, two Colombian filmmakers who worked on the behind-the-scenes documentary “Imagining Zootopia.”
“As we were trying to figure out all of these perspectives and how to bring all the wonders and splinters of Latin America in a way that felt real,” Bush said, “they were like, ‘It’s the crossroads. Everything you can imagine is there.’”
Osma and Rendon both became members of the Colombian Cultural Trust, a 10-member group of specialists — historians and anthropologists, biologists and botanists — dedicated to the movie’s details.
“Encanto” has been praised for its cultural accuracy. And many Colombians and Colombian Americans loved the film — but it has also started a debate: What can and can’t one movie capture about a country?
Whether it’s the racial dynamics that exist today or a strong sense of place in a country one-ninth the size of the United States, the film’s portrayal of nuanced and critical topics has sparked countless discussions among those of Colombian descent.
“I found it charming,” writer and editor Camilo Garzón said. “I found it beautiful. At the same time, it fell short in terms of what representation for representation’s sake can be.”
He explained, “In the spirit of American meliorism, the criticism is to make things better, not necessarily because I didn’t like it.”
Colombia, located where Central and South America meet, is home to more than 50 million inhabitants, and its rich cultural heritage reflects influences from Indigenous populations, European colonization, enslaved African people and later immigration.
In Hollywood, the nation has been used mainly to tell stories about drugs, drug lords and violence — known as narconovelas — and that is why “Encanto” means so much: The country has never received treatment like this from a major American studio before.
The film, which is up for the Oscar for best animated feature this month — follows the Madrigals. Years ago, Alma Madrigal fled her home to escape armed conflict. She saved her three infants but lost her husband. Devastated, the matriarch clung to the candle lighting her way, which became enchanted. Its magic imbues her family members with fantastical gifts when they come of age — except for Alma’s youngest granddaughter, Mirabel.
In 2018, Bush; Howard; executive music producer Tom MacDougall; Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote eight songs for the film; and Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda Jr., credited as a story consultant, traveled through Colombia for two weeks on a research trip.
They started in sunny Cartagena on the Caribbean coast; drove roughly an hour and a half to San Basilio de Palenque; visited in and around the capital, Bogotá; and saw Bucaramanga, the city of parks. In Barichara, they heard traditional bambuco music, which would inspire the song “Waiting on a Miracle.” They ended in the Eje Cafetero, the coffee-growing region, including Salento and the Valle de Cocora. The soaring wax palm trees of the valley would later feature heavily on screen.
The research process continued throughout the five years of production. Familia, a group of Latino Disney employees, was assembled to share personal perspectives that would help shape the film. Iterations of the project were screened about eight times, said a producer of the film, Yvett Merino. Familia, which she is part of, watched each time and read early scripts.
“I joke that they were like true family, because they gave us true feedback,” Merino said. “When they didn’t like something, they really let us know.”
The opposite held true, too: Members of the Colombian Cultural Trust made clear what they thought should be included, like the storyline of conflict and displacement.
In 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace deal with the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, supposedly heralding the end of a conflict that had left more than 220,000 people dead over more than a half-century.
“We were repeatedly asked, ‘Please don’t shy away from that; that is part of our history,’” Bush said. “By going through it, you also see the incredible resilience of Colombians.”
Garzón was born in Bogotá and moved to the U.S. at the age of 18. “It’s beautiful to see different things that you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, this makes me feel back at home,’” he said. “And at the same time, that’s not home, because home wouldn’t look like that.”
He contrasted the pueblo surrounding the Madrigal family’s enchanted house with the town of Macondo, where Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez set his novel “100 Years of Solitude.” Both are fictional, but Macondo is believed to be based on Aracataca, García Márquez’s actual childhood home, while the pueblo is an amalgam of Colombian sites.
“That cheapens the places, cheapens the significance of the geographies,” said Garzón, who critiqued the film’s generic setting in an article for Intervenxions, an online publication of the Latinx Project at New York University.
He also saw a family whose members looked deeply different from one another but lived in harmony — without ever talking about how race affects their lives.
This, he said, was unrealistic: It was a representation of Colombia projected from an American perspective. But as he kept watching, he began to see the film’s depiction instead as an ideal to strive for — whether or not that was the filmmakers’ intent.
Lina Britto, an associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at Northwestern University, agreed with the criticisms about place and race. “But I think expecting that from a movie like this would be not understanding the alphabet that they are using to write the story,” she said. “And the alphabet is the alphabet of magical realism.”
The professor, who is from Colombia, said accuracy was not necessarily a concern or a goal in magical realism. She said the film’s premise — that the Madrigals received magical gifts as a result of overcoming tragedy — could open up a conversation about the history and reality of Colombia in an artistic manner.
“Each person has his own unique talent,” Britto said, “that is the product of each one of them transmuting the trauma into something special and something unique and something that is going to be of service to others, not just to themselves.”
Britto views each gift or talent as a form of justice and reparation — which, she said, is “absolutely crucial” to Colombia at this moment as the peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia threatens to unravel. In the courage of the young protagonist, Mirabel, and the receptiveness of young viewers, though, she sees hope for the future.
“It’s the audience — and the insightfulness, the intelligence, the open-mindedness of this generation,” Britto said, “that has pushed older people — the producers, the creators — to be more daring.”