‘Look at your people’: What Australia’s screen industry can learn from Encanto

‘Look at your people’: What Australia’s screen industry can learn from Encanto

December 7, 2021

To portray a “Disney princess” is a rare Hollywood honour and, until recently, one that remained largely out-of-bounds to certain demographics.

Stephanie Beatriz, who stars as the endearing Mirabel in the new animated blockbuster Encanto – a magical-realist family fable set amid the coffee fields of Colombia – still can’t believe she’s landed a character that will join the ranks of Ariel, Bella, Elsa and Moana in Disney lore.

“When I got to audition for this I was like, ‘Well, I guess dreams come true, I’m auditioning for a Disney movie’ – never imagined that I would actually book it,” the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star, who was born in Argentina to a Colombian father and a Bolivian mother, says.

Stephanie Beatriz voices Mirabel Madrigal in Disney’s new blockbuster, Encanto.Credit:Disney

“The impact of this is huge,” her co-star, veteran actor John Leguizamo, himself born in Colombia, adds. “I mean, she already has dolls that look like her. Little girls are gonna be singing her songs, fulfilling themselves in the mirror to her.”

The film about the magical Madrigal family centres on Beatriz’s young misfit Mirabel. Unlike her relatives who have been gifted superhuman abilities, Mirabel is powerless and awkward. Its Colombian setting allows Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed original songs for the film, to play with distinct musical genres like cumbia, reggaeton and rock en espanol.

Stephanie Beatriz at the premiere of Encanto in Los Angeles last month.Credit:Invision

Which brings me to a brief aside: seeing one’s cultural experience reflected in a Disney film is a wild thing. While, sadly, I’m far from being a little Colombian girl who looks like Stephanie Beatriz, as the child of Argentinian immigrants I found myself chuckling at moments of unique South American familiarity in Encanto.

There was a surreal delight in, for example, hearing a cartoon character dramatically whisper “miercoles” (the Spanish equivalent of a self-censoring “sugar” in place of cursing) in a major Disney movie. Or to hear another character rattle off “Sana sana, colita de rana…,” the comforting chant your mum might say when you’ve clumsily bumped your head or grazed a knee.

Remarkably, after Pixar’s Mexican-themed Coco (2017) and Sony Pictures’ Cuban-centric Vivo (2021), Encanto is the third major Spanglish-skewing, animated showcase of Latin American culture to come out of Hollywood within four years. Why?

“It’s long overdue, that’s why!” says Leguizamo. “We’re the largest ethnic group in America; we’ve got the second-largest language in this part of the world; we have a great culture, rich with history, great with storytelling. It was just a matter of time before the floodgates opened and they gave us our shot.”

Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, and Bruno, voiced by John Leguizamo, in a scene from Encanto.Credit:Disney

While the Latin American community in Australia is negligible compared to its demographics in the US, it raises an interesting question: can you picture the Australian screen industry releasing one, let alone three, big-budget, family-friendly features celebrating our own key cultural groups – say Asian, Middle Eastern or Pasifika communities – within the space of four years? It’s unimaginable.

For all the discussion around the lack of cultural representation in Hollywood films and TV, the US remains light years ahead of Australia in accurately reflecting its population on its screens and telling stories that specifically speak to its diverse demographics.

Recent local studies have highlighted the details. PwC’s Who’s the Fairest of Them All? study in 2016 found that “82.7 per cent of the Australian entertainment and media workforce were monolingual”, while Screen Australia’s Seeing Ourselves study in the same year found that “across the 199 Australian TV drama programs broadcast over the last five years, only 18 per cent of main characters had non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds”.

Wilmer Valderrama, who plays Mirabel’s father Agustin in Encanto, recalls as much after spending time in Australia in 2018 to help celebrate the local screen industry as a guest presenter at the TV Week Logies.

“Look, I love my Australian friends and family and my fans out there, but it’s true – the films and television were not really reflective of how diverse Australia really is. Australia is incredibly diverse! We’re out here [in the US] cracking the ice, and we hope that what we do here can segue into other places like Australia.”

So how do we get our own equivalent run of a Coco, Vivo, Encanto in Australia? Are there lessons the local industry can take from Hollywood’s example?

“Just tell more stories! The more, the merrier!” says Jessica Darrow, who plays tough sister Luisa in the film. “Just look at your people. You’ll never run out of stories.”

Leguizamo says the structural change was significant, with more minorities accepted into leadership and decision-making positions in Hollywood.

“We just needed more Latins as executives for the studio system to understand that we over-index at the box office and in streaming and that it’s in their best interests to represent this,” he says. “Because of the pandemic and because of #BlackLivesMatter, more change is happening. Finally, America is reckoning with its lack of inclusion.”

Beatriz points to the global success of Squid Game as proof that audiences are more open-minded and adventurous than studio decision-makers give them credit for.

“[Squid Game] is a Korean story, told in Korean, with Korean actors. It’s extremely culturally specific, and yet the story is so good – and that’s ultimately what it comes down to. I think the industry needs to wake up to the fact that all anyone really wants is a good story.”

“That’s the thing, though,” adds Leguizamo. “We all want a good story but for so long our stories, with our faces, weren’t being told.”

He recalls his salad days in acting in the ’80s, where he was exclusively “auditioning for drug dealers, murderers, rapists, or the cleaning person”.

“That was literally it. And it was always the same cats [at auditions] – me, Luis Guzman, Benicio del Toro,” he laughs.

“Things have definitely improved, things are better. I mean, look at Encanto – Mirabel is this great heroine, and it’s a positive, uplifting story.

“Now we’ve got great stories, just like everyone around the world has great stories. So just put out those great stories and people will see them, they will come.”

Encanto opens in cinemas on Thursday.

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