As society develops, so does the media. With the current group of potential Oscar contenders in the animation category, it’s more than a coincidence that they all incorporate and maintain different racial cultures in their storytelling, a sharp deviation from more mainstream white actors and stories that are culturally erased from the past. While the “Raya and the Last Dragon” (Disney), “Luca” (Pixar) and “Encanto” (Disney) movies look special for 2021, they have all been in the works for more than five years before audiences get their first glimpses of the characters .
It is encouraging that this meditation on the world is more accurate than in the past. It’s not that Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast wasn’t a groundbreaking movie per se, but that in terms of setting and culture as a character, Belle’s clothes, songs, and location didn’t set her anywhere in particular other than a few French words on storefronts.
Now compare that to Disney’s “Encanto” and the Madrigal family in Colombia. Details such as the embroidery on Mirabel’s clothing, the characters pointing with their lips and the corn mill in the family’s kitchen help provide a sense of culture and place. The incorporation of ethnic diversity in Colombia was particularly important. There is more to Latin American representation than one group and it was important that Colombia be reflected on screen as accurately as possible for the film’s co-creators. Director and writer Jared Bush says,[There’s] This amazing mix of indigenous, Afro-Colombian, European… and it was so important for us to represent that. “
Indeed, this is the area in which this year’s “In the Heights,” inspired by the award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, received criticism, acknowledged by author and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda, who wrote the songs for “Encanto,” has been part of the project from the start after working with Bush on the song Moana.
The team consulted Colombian documentary musicians, writers, and directors, as well as a Latin select group for Disney peers to make sure their voices were included.
One of the defining moments for the team was three years in the making. While on a trip to Barichara, the Disney band witnessed a personal concert of Bambuco – a regional style of music played on 12-chord tabby. Later, when the Mirabel song didn’t come together, Miranda used that night as inspiration.
“It’s the only song in the entire movie that’s 3/4 times as long as a waltz,” says Bush. “So, even rhythmically, Mirabell ran out of time with the rest of her family.”
For all the details that make Mirabell’s story unique to Colombia, her experiences are universal, and that’s what the filmmakers hope will resonate. “All my life I have had issues with self-worth. This is something that has always been difficult for me,” says Bush, noting that curated social media is not helpful. “So, I think what I’m most proud of is having this character who goes on this journey who knows not only that she is worthy, but that everyone around her seems to be living this great life struggling with just the same.”
Jennifer Lee, director of creative at Walt Disney Animation Studios, has long maintained her position that talent is universal but access is not, and by committing to diversification, the studio’s storytelling will improve. “Our greatest humanities are experiences shared across our cultures, across our worlds, and getting to know each other,” she says.
For perspective, the University of Southern California’s Annen-berg Inclusion Report, September-November 2021 on Hispanic and Latino representation in film analyzed 1,300 films from 2007 to 2019. The results reflected that only 3.5% of leads that were screened. identifying them as Hispanic or Latino compared to the 18.7% of the US population who do. Cameron Diaz, whose last feature-length role was last credited as 2014’s “Annie,” took five of those credits.
That same analysis of Asia Pacific Islanders dropped it to a representation percentage of 3.4%—with actor Dwayne Johnson casting in 14 roles.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” brought on three women as a vocalist who weren’t already on Annenberg’s roster: Kelly Marie Tran (Raya), Awkwafina (Sisu) and Gemma Chan (Namare).
Avoiding stereotype risks was at the forefront of the team’s primary consideration. Director Don Hall notes that they were “familiar with the metaphors [such as the] A solitary stoic warrior” and intentionally wanted to avoid them.
Raya wears the stereotypical Vietnamese cone hat, comedian, and, yes, the stereotypical Vietnamese cone hat. It’s a fashion item that screenwriter Qui Nguyen says he pushed to include in order to create a positive affiliation with it.
“Being a Vietnamese, the cone hat is part of my family and my culture… and I hated having this negative stereotype in it. [and] Connotation,” Nguyen says. “I wanted to take the same photo and make it heroic.”
It’s the representation that led to his inclusion. “It’s the difference between having someone in the room and having skin in the game to be able to talk about it, from someone based entirely on good intentions saying ‘Oh, maybe we should avoid that because it’s scary,'” Nguyen says. “Intentions don’t help in the end.” The ultimate in conversation development.”
The inclusion of many Asian voices in the process makes Riya distinct from its culture. For example, one of the iterations of the cartoon prompted her to throw off her shoes in a temple. While the procedure seems appropriate for a character in a hurry, it doesn’t suit Raya Southeast Asia, who would have learned early on how to properly leave her on the move.
While Rhea’s community and prestige are important components of the story, her experiences are universal. “Her super heroic moment is a human moment,” explains Nguyen. Raya’s inner strength is the core of the film, regardless of her culture. But, by the same token, its culture is the basis of the story.
People of any society develop according to their cultures, and these elements are uniformly important.
In “Luca” produced by Pixar, writer and director Enrico Casarosa wanted to shoot a movie in Italy in his youth. “We love pasta. Casarosa, who feels the truth may exist within the stereotype, admits, but the details strike a balance. So, not only is there no pasta and pesto in the movie, but the “traditional pesto away, Genovese, which is with potatoes and beans” was cooked the same way his grandmother made it.
There have been long discussions about the characters’ gestures, how they should be done, and what the line is between clichés and truth. Casarosa remembers an unforgettable Zoom call with the Disney team in Italy all explaining how they would send someone to Hell as a way to learn the film’s body language.
Another challenge was the choice of the English speaker to have an Italian accent. Parrot a different ethnic dialect, previously common, was not true. In fact, it was as recently as January 2020 that Hank Azaria stepped aside after decades of voicing Apu on The Simpsons.
Casarosa says the team searched for indigenous dialect children, but came up with it in a nutshell. “Children who come here from Italy [quickly lose their accent] Which is really cool because it talks a lot about peer pressure and the desire to integrate,” he notes.
Instead, they divided the sea monster realm and the human world, so it made sense that they spoke with American accents. “They go into this human Italian world and don’t understand it very well,” he says, likening him to his own experience in America.
No doubt these are not the same films, or considerations, from before. With increasing diversification, the weight of an entire culture will not end up resting solely on the shoulders of a few representative figures.
Until then, it’s a process of listening and developing. “It’s not easy and the answers aren’t clear all the time,” he tells me. “[But] Committing is easy and keeping trying is easy, so we’ll keep seeing where we go.”