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‘Encanto’ Writers on Bruno’s Viral Popularity and the Madrigal’s Complex Family Dynamics: ‘We Spoke to a Lot of Therapists’

encanto green rock disney
Disney/Everett Collection

The team behind Disney Animation’s “Encanto” gave themselves a high degree of difficulty: In a development/production process that took five years of constant rewrites, they insisted on a film with a family of 12 principals, while most animated films center on half that number.

The film is about 15-year-old Mirabel Madrigal (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) and her family; the breakout star for fans and social media is Bruno, the exiled uncle voiced by John Leguizamo. “Encanto” was written by Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith from a story credited to six writers, including those two. Castro Smith and Bush directed alongside Byron Howard.

“We knew he was someone people would gravitate towards,” Bush says on Bruno. “John was so spectacular: funny, lovable and weird — and in not a lot of screen time!”

Bruno is part of a long line of family outcasts, starting with Greek tragedies through Shakespeare to Buster Keaton, James Dean and Peter Parker. Those characters have always been embraced by audiences, though none got a song as popular as “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”

Castro Smith says: “Every family has an outcast or someone who feels like an outcast. I think it’s one of the reasons the character has taken off. A lot of people feel like a black sheep.”

They did intensive research early on, says Bush: “We spoke to a lot of therapists and psychologists. One gave us an interesting stat: In a four-person family, each was asked ‘Who is treated the best by the parents?’ Their answers were never the same. It’s about how you perceive yourself in the family.”

For anyone who works in live-action, feature-toon work is a foreign country and each animation house has its own procedure.

Bush says at Disney Animation, “the lines are blurred between development and production. Even in early development, working through story ideas, artists are working concurrently, fleshing out those ideas visually.”

Castro Smith adds, “The writing process starts from day one and continues until the film is in the can. At Disney Animation, we do internal screenings: We write the entire script, board it, edit it, record all the voices and add sound. Then we screen it for people at the studio. We did this eight times from January 2019 through the time the film came out. We had 1,300 drafts between the two of us.”

Bush adds that the screenings generally involved black-and-white images. “They’re beautiful drawings and I think for this movie, there were 80,000-plus drawings, maybe more. With those eight screenings, you’re trying to understand the characters better and pressure-testing ideas and exploring a new avenue that may or may not work. Sometimes you find gold, sometimes it’s a dead-end. Sometimes you will work on a three-minute sequence, while everything else around it is still in flux.”

Aside from an Oscar nom for animated film, “Encanto” is up for song and score, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Germaine Franco, respectively.

The soundtrack album and single “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” have topped the charts repeatedly this year, with the song enjoying the longest run at No. 1 for any Disney tune.

So yes, Bruno is worth talking about.

The prolonged COVID isolation added an interesting angle to their work.

Castro Smith points out that many Disney movies involve someone setting out on a journey to find themselves. “We wanted this primarily to take place with a girl and her family inside their house. And we made this movie while all of us were trapped in a house with our families. It was definitely challenging in terms of production, but a strangely wonderful opportunity.”

Bush says the home was very important and they worked to create a credible family. “We looked at archetypes of families and got specific: What were the children like of the matriarch, who would they marry and why, and how would they raise their children? All of those dynamics had to make sense. Creating them was difficult, but once we had all those pieces, everything made sense. But doing that many animated characters is really challenging.”

Castro Smith says Mirabel was her favorite character; “I also liked writing scenes between her and her grandmother, and her with her mom. Women scenes are my jam,” she laughs.

The internet offers multiple examples of the public’s embrace of the film, as people post TikTok videos, cosplay footage, singing or lip-synching and fan art.

Bush says, “On TikTok I was blown away by how many people saw themselves in the movie and wanted to join in.”

He concludes, “There were 800 people on ‘Encanto’ and I’ve never seen so many people working on such a high level. Every single department overdelivered, time and time again. I want to give a hats off to entire crew.”

Castro Smith adds, “The same about our cast. Everyone took it on in such a personal way, we feel lucky we have all of them.”