DUBAI: There has long been a strong cultural link between Latin America and the Arab world. Hundreds of thousands of people from the Levant have emigrated to Latin America over the past 150 years.
It's no wonder, then, that when Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess began work on “Encanto,” Disney’s latest musical, he saw in the film’s large, diverse Colombian family a reflection of his own.
“The biggest thing that I connected with in this project is that I have a really big family in Lebanon,” Moulayess tells Arab News. “It really made me question the relationships I have with my own family, and how well I know them, and how well they know each of us. With the lead character of Mirabel, I kept thinking of my oldest cousin back in Lebanon, Louisa. She carries a lot of weight and responsibility. A lot of the characters made me think about each of my own family members, and what they're going through. Each character in their family reminded me of one in mine.”
Moulayess and his family connected with Latin American culture a while back, he explains, thanks to the telenovelas that have proved so popular in the Arab world.
“Growing up, I remember my parents, my mom and my aunts and I watching a lot of (those) in Lebanon. One of the key songs in the film, ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno,’ reminds me a lot of those shows,” says Moulayess.
Part of Moulayess’s job is to film ‘reference shots’ — acting scenes out physically in front of the camera so those performances can be animated to match each character’s movements. As a result, Moulayess has to get into the heads of each character, including the film’s lead, Mirabel.
“Obviously, I'm not built like Mirabel. But I had to learn to move like her, even though I’m always questioning my acting choices. We had a lot of meetings to make sure we were as truthful and respectful to the culture and the character as possible,” says Moulayess. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Who is she? She’s quirky, she’s funny, she’s sad, but is she happy? What’s going through her mind?’ I had to get into her head in each moment, feel what she’s feeling, and try to emulate that.”
In “Encanto,” Mirabel is the only non-magical member of a magical family, in which each person has a unique ability. While the film centers around her struggles to find something special in herself, we get to see how each member of the family has their own identity crises, even those who appear perfect on the surface.
Each member of the team, each from a different background, found something to connect with, including the Tony-, Grammy- and Emmy-winning songwriter Lin Manuel Miranda, who composed the songs.
“Anyone who has grown up in any family understands the tension of how you see yourself versus how your family sees you, and how that grows and changes over time,” Miranda tells Arab News. “That is multiplied by your siblings, and your aunts, and your uncles, and your cousins, and the ways in which you interact with all those folks. That’s all meaty stuff to write about. I don't think there’s a person who can go to this movie and not identify with a character up on that screen,” says Miranda.
For the song “Pressure”, about the older sister seen as the strongest member of the family, Miranda, director Jared Bush, Moulayess and the rest of the team each could find a member of the family that they used to understand the character, and, in reverse, that song helped them understand better.
“That song was both my love letter and apology to my older sister,” says Miranda. “Looking at it as a parent, you make all your mistakes on the first kid, they inadvertently always bear more responsibility than their younger siblings. To write from that perspective was kind of incredible. It reflects my sister in the sense that it's the toughest exterior in the family, and then actually the most sensitive underbelly underneath.”
“All of our research was really our own families,” says Bush. “We found these archetypes were true all over, such as the black sheep of the family, or the golden child, or the responsible one, or the mom who heals with her food. All of these things felt very familiar to us, and very relatable, Universally, around the world, we found these archetypes held true.”
“This was honestly a joy to write, from start to finish,” Miranda says. “I can't wait for families from all over to see themselves reflected up on that screen,” says Miranda.