Features Toons Sensitive to Diverse Cultures in Storytelling and Characters

As society evolves, media follow. With the current crop of potential Oscar contenders in the animated feature category, it’s more than coincidence that all incorporate and preserve different ethnic cultures within the storytelling, a sharp deviation from the more commonplace all-white casts and culturally expunged stories of the past. While “Raya and the Last Dragon” (Disney), “Luca” (Pixar) and “Encanto” (Disney) seem distinctly of 2021, they were all in the works for over five years before audiences caught their first glimpses of the characters.

Encouragingly, this world reflection is more accurate than in the past. It’s not that Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” wasn’t a groundbreaking movie in its own right, but in terms of place and culture as a character, Belle’s clothing, songs and setting didn’t place her anywhere specific beyond a few French words on shopfronts.

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Contrast that now with Disney’s “Encanto” and the Madrigal family of Colombia. Details like the embroidery on Mirabel’s clothing, characters pointing with their lips and the corn grinder in the family kitchen help provide a sense of culture and place. Of particular importance was incorporating the ethnic diversity in Colombia . There’s more to Latin American representation than one group and it was important that Colombia was reflected on screen as accurately as possible to the creatives involved in the film. Director and writer Jared Bush says, “[There’s] this amazing mix of indigenous and Afro-Colombian and European … and it was critical for us to represent that.”

In fact, that’s an area where this year’s “In the Heights,” based on the award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, received criticism that creator-writer Lin-Manuel Miranda acknowledged. Miranda, who wrote the songs for “Encanto,” was part of the project from the very beginning having worked with Bush on “Moana.”

The team consulted Colombian documentarians, writers and directors, in addition to a Latin identifying group of Disney peers to make sure their voices were included.

One of the team’s breakthrough moments was three years in the making. While on a trip to Barichara, the Disney contingent experienced a personalized Bambuco concert — a regional style of music played on the 12-stringed tiple. Later, when Mirabel’s song wasn’t coming together, Miranda used that night as inspiration.

“It’s the only song in the whole movie that’s in 3/4 time like a waltz,” Bush says. “So, even rhythmically Mirabel’s out of time with the rest of her family.”
For all the details that make Mirabel’s story uniquely Colombian, her experiences are universal, and that’s what the filmmakers hope resonates. “My whole life I’ve had self-worth issues. That’s something that’s always been difficult for me,” says Bush, noting that curated social media isn’t helpful. “So, I think the thing I’m the most proud of is having this character who goes on this journey and who realizes not only that she has worth, but that everyone around her who looks like they have these great lives is struggling just the same.”

Walt Disney animation studios chief creative officer Jennifer Lee has long maintained her stance that talent is universal but access is not, and by committing to diversifying, the studio’s storytelling will improve. “Our greatest humanities are shared experiences across our cultures, across our worlds, and getting to know each other,” she says.

For perspective, USC’s Annen-berg Inclusion Initiative’s Sep-tember 2021 report on Hispanic and Latino Representation in Film analyzed 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2019. Findings reflected that only 3.5% of the leads identified as Hispanic or Latino as compared to 18.7% of the United States population who do. Cameron Diaz, whose last billed feature-length role was 2014’s “Annie,” accounted for five of those credits.

That same analysis of Asian and Pacific Islanders dropped to 3.4% representation — with actor Dwayne Johnson cast in 14 of the roles.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” brought in three women as voice leads who weren’t already established on the Annenberg list: Kelly Marie Tran (Raya), Awkwafina (Sisu) and Gemma Chan (Namari).

Avoiding the pitfalls of stereotype were at the forefront of the core team’s considerations. Director Don Hall notes that they were “cognizant of the tropes [such as the] stoic solitary warrior” and consciously wanted to avoid them.

Raya’s quippy, comedic and, yes, also wears the stereotypical Vietnamese conical hat. It’s a costume element that screenwriter Qui Nguyen says he pushed to include in order to create a positive affiliation for it.

“Being Vietnamese, the conical hat is part of my family and my culture … and I hated that it had this negative stereotype [and] connotation,” Nguyen says. “I wanted to take that same image and make it heroic.”

It’s representation that led to its inclusion. “It’s the difference between having someone who’s in the room and who has skin in the game to be able to talk about it, than someone totally based on good intentions, saying ‘Oh, maybe we should avoid it because it’s scary,’” Nguyen says. “Intentions don’t ultimately help evolve the conversation.”

Including many Asian voices in the process make Raya distinctly of her culture. For instance, one iteration of animation had her chucking off her shoes in a temple. Though the action seems appropriate for a character in a hurry, it doesn’t fit Southeast Asian Raya, who would have been educated early on how to leave them properly on the step.

While Raya’s society and setting are significant components to the story, her experiences are global. Nguyen explains that “her ultimate super heroic moment is a human moment.” Raya’s inner strength is the core of the movie, regardless of her culture. But, by the same token, her culture is what grounds the story.

People from any society develop as informed by their cultures, and those elements are uniformly important.

In Pixar’s “Luca,” writer and director Enrico Casarosa wanted to set a film in the Italy of his youth. “We do love pasta. It’s true, no lie to it,” admits Casarosa, who feels that truth may exist within stereotype, but specifics lead to balance. So it’s not just any pasta and pesto in the movie, but “pesto the traditional away, Genovese, which is with potatoes and string beans” cooked the same way his grandmother made it.

There were long discussions about the characters’ gesticulating, how it should be done, and what the line was between cliché and truth. Casarosa recalls a memorable Zoom call with the Disney team in Italy all demonstrating how they would send someone to Hell as a means of figuring out the movie’s body language.

Another challenge was casting an English speaker to have an Italian accent. Parroting a different ethnic accent, once commonplace, didn’t sit right. 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 kids with authentic accents, but came up short. “Kids that come here from Italy [quickly lose their accent] which is actually fascinating because it speaks a lot about peer pressure and wanting to fit in,” he notes.

Instead, they divided the worlds of sea monster and human so it made sense that they spoke with American accents. “They go into this world of human Italian and don’t understand it very well,” he says, likening it to his own experience in America.

No doubt these aren’t the same movies, or considerations, of before. With increased diversification, the weight of an entire culture won’t wind up resting solely upon the shoulders of a few representative characters.

Until then, it’s a process of listening and evolving. “It’s not easy and the answers aren’t clear all the time,” says Lee. “[But] the commitment is easy and the continuing to try is easy, so we’ll keep seeing where we go.”

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