Walt and Encanto
“Umm…Mr. Barker, you have a visitor.”
The low-level executive at the Walt Disney Studios closed his eyes in frustration. He was busy. He’d told Marjorie he was busy. What part of busy was unclear? He stared at the receiver in his hand currently awaiting his response with resignation.
“Marjorie, could you pick up?”
He heard the click indicating he was no longer on speaker. Before she could speak, he started in.
“Marjorie, I thought I explained how behind I am. Unless it’s the CEO, I don’t have time for visitors. Can you please figure out a good excuse for me, because I don’t even have time to think of one, and deal with this?”
“Mr. Barker…” Marjorie hesitated. The hackles on the back of the executive’s neck began to rise. Marjorie never hesitated.
“…I believe your schedule may have just opened up. Your guest is quite insistent and has made it clear time is of the essence.”
He hung up the receiver without responding and sighed deeply. He could not conceive of anything that could possibly take priority over the project sitting on his desk. But the truth was, he knew Marjorie understood that as well as he did, so despite a myriad of reservations, he stood and grudgingly made his way to the door of his office.
Stepping out into the hallway in front of his admin assistant’s station, his heart stopped and his jaw involuntarily dropped open. Standing in front of him was a man who would have commanded the immediate attention of the CEO himself, let alone someone as low on the org chart as him. Despite any plausible explanation, he found himself staring into the face of the man who started it all, Mr. Walt Disney.
Unable to produce a sound, the executive stood dumbstruck, his mind unable to comprehend what was happening. Marjorie for her part, seemed equally incapacitated and simply sat at her desk, her eyes darting nervously between the two men.
Sensing that no formal introductions were forthcoming, the visitor stepped forward with his hand extended and said, “I believe you probably recognize that I’m Walt Disney. From your stunned expression, I assume you are struggling with the fact that I’m standing here when the reality of my circumstances are that I’m dead.”
Through the haze crowding into every corner of his brain, the executive managed a half nod.
“Well, I would normally be happy to explain to you what is occuring, but my understanding is that I have exactly three hours for my visit. Three hours that began approximately,” Mr. Disney paused to check his watch, “six minutes ago. Suffice it to say, you wouldn’t understand it all even if I told you, but the short of it is, I have two hours and fifty-four minutes to glean all I can regarding the current status of the company started.”
The executive began looking around at all of the other offices along his floor and slowly realized the traditional work day had ended over an hour ago. Due to the time crunch he was under, he hadn’t left and had actually kept Marjorie on the clock long past a time that would be appreciated by the folks in Fiscal. In short, on this floor he was alone.
“Uh, if you can wait a moment, my assistant and I can try to find someone more qualified to show you around or answer your questions, sir,” the executive stated as he moved around the barrier in order to pick up the receiver of Marjorie’s phone.
“Young man, did you not hear me? I have less than three hours. I can’t wait for anything. I would actually love to tour my theme parks, but the time it would take to even get there would not allow it. I would love to get a full corporate rundown on all that the Disney company is involved with today, but again…time. However, as I contemplated how I would spend my three hours, I believe there is one thing I can do that will adequately inform me as to whether or not the company I gave my heart and soul to is living up to my expectations.”
The bold declaration hung in the air as Mr. Disney stood confidently staring at the obviously flummoxed executive. When it became clear that Walt would not be volunteering what it was he expected without some prompting, the executive finally broke the silence.
“Ohhkayyy. What is it you believe I can do for you?”
“Do you have access to a screening room?”
“I would like to see the most recent animated feature released by the Walt Disney company. You still produce animated features don’t you?”
“Uhh, yeah. We just released the 60th Disney animated feature last week.”
“I want to see it.”
Mr. Barker breathed easily for the first time since this unexpected encounter began. This request was actually something he could handle quite easily. With a half smile and quick nod, he shot back, “Let’s see what we can do.”
The executive picked up the phone and began firing instructions into the receiver and less than ten minutes later, the two men were seated in a small screening room one floor up from the young executive’s office. As an afterthought, he’d asked Marjorie if she wanted to join them, but she quickly produced an excuse and begged off. He was on his own and not entirely certain that he wasn’t in the midst of experiencing a mental breakdown. Nevertheless, he glanced over into the expectant gaze of Mr. Disney and raised his eyebrows.
“Go on, man. We haven’t got all day.”
The room went dark and the screen came to life with the story of Mirabel Madrigral as told in the motion picture, Encanto.
Almost immediately, a look of astonishment crossed Walt’s face.
“How are your animators doing this? Drawing all of this would take a decade or more?”
“We don’t hand draw anything anymore. Everything is done with computerized animation.”
Walt shook his head and looked as if he wanted to follow up with more questions, but he stopped, turned back to the screen and resumed watching.
The executive noted a contemplative frown cross the old man’s features as the refrains of the movie’s first song filled the room. But he said nothing.
The next 120 minutes followed without another word spoken between the two men. The executive, who had seen Encanto no less than 30 times, kept his attention focused on his unexpected guest and never once shifted his gaze to the screen. However, as the movie entered its final climax, his sense of how Mr. Disney felt about what he was seeing remained a complete mystery-the only hint comprised of a brief brushing of the eye at a crucial moment meant to elicit an emotional response.
As the film concluded, they continued to sit in silence as Walt Disney studiously examined the credits and the executive continued to watch closely for any indication of how the movie had been received.
Finally, Mr. Disney turned to Mr. Barker as the credits continued to roll. The executive pushed a second button and the screen went dark as the lights came up.
The executive held his breath as he awaited Mr. Disney’s verdict. However, the first words out of his mouth relayed an unexpected question in the form of an observation.
“There’s no villain.”
“Uhh…no. That’s true. There is no villain. It’s more of a film about personal growth, family introspection, and the finding of one’s self-worth. It’s actually a trend in our animated movies lately. I can’t think of a memorable villain in the last…I don’t know, four or five movies we’ve done?”
“Hmm.” The old man turned back to the screen and narrowed his eyes, contemplating his next question.
“Is it financially wise to focus an entire movie on a…South American demographic?”
“Well, it was the number one movie at the domestic box office over the Thanksgiving weekend. Keep in mind that we are still experiencing pandemic level box office returns, but it had a significant opening at just over forty million dollars.”
“Forty million dollars!” Walt bellowed. “Movies today can make forty million dollars in a single weekend? That’s insane!”
“Actually,” the executive stammered, “the Disney company has produced quite a list of movies that have brought in over one hundred million dollars in a single weekend, but again, we haven’t seen numbers like that since before the pandemic.”
“One hundred million dollars,” Walt breathed, his eyes glazing over. Then, shaking himself back into the moment, he added, “I’m sure I’d love to learn more about this pandemic you keep mentioning, but time is running short. But if I understand you correctly, this movie performed well?”
“It’s only been out for less than a week, but…yes. Pretty well.
“Your heroine is not a princess, and she’s practically the only one in the entire movie who doesn’t have magical powers.”
The executive wasn’t sure if he was being asked a question or if he was even meant to respond. Before he could decide, Walt went on.
“The music…this Lin Manuel-Miranda fella. That kind of thing flies today?”
“Oh, yes! His most recent Broadway musical was a massive hit. This is the second animated Disney movie he’s written songs for. The other one was quite popular.”
“Did he throw so many words into those songs as well?”
“As a matter of fact, he did. That’s kind of his style.”
“Hmm,” Walt murmured again. “Well, I have to admit that this experience has been very enlightening.”
After more than two hours together, the finality of the statement without any insight as to the feelings behind it was more than the executive could handle. He blurted out, “Well, did you like it?”
Walt turned and regarded him silently for several seconds. Finally, he responded.
“I would never have made that movie,” he said quietly.
The younger man’s heart fell. Although he hadn’t been directly involved in the making of Encanto, he still felt a sense of pride for what the company had produced. To hear that the man who had started it all was not impressed hurt more than he ever could have imagined.
“Well,” he fumbled, “I’m very sorry to hear that. We often ask ourselves around here, ‘What would Walt think?’ or ‘What would Walt do?’ I have to admit it is truly disheartening to learn we aren’t…there, I guess.” His eyes dropped to his knees as he struggled to find any additional words to say.
Walt leaned forward, placing a comforting hand on the young man’s knee. “You misunderstand what I’m saying. I would never have made that movie. And the Walt Disney company would have been so much the less for that decision.”
The executive looked up, confused.
“That movie was beautiful. The story…so much deeper than anything I ever produced. Each character was layered with personalities traits that were so rich and compelling. The music is not what I would listen to, but it’s ability to move along the narrative is unmatched in any film we produced in my day. The themes of my films were always some form of good triumphing over evil. What I just watched was so much more.”
The younger man stared back at Walt incredulously. “But, you are the ultimate example of dreams and imagination. Certainly you would have arrived at this point, as we did.”
“Maybe,” the older man acknowledged. “But I doubt it. I was a pioneer. But even pioneers are limited by their own life experiences.”
He stopped and looked away. “Let me put it this way. Have you heard the story about my inspiration that led to me creating Disneyland?”
“You mean the visit you had to a park with your daughters where they rode a carousel while you sat on a bench and watched?”
“Yeah, that one. That experience inspired me to create a place where families could experience enjoyment together. But that’s as far as it went. This movie can help families understand what it means to be a family. To be accepting of each other, and truly love each other, despite our faults. That’s extraordinary!
“Long story short, I never would have made that movie because I was limited in my vision of what an animated movie could be. But the dream that I had for this company, that imagination and powerful storytelling would continue to lead it to new and exciting frontiers, is so beautifully encapsulated and portrayed in this movie, Encanto. Thank you, for humoring an old man and providing me this opportunity to experience that.”
Walt stood and made his way for the door. As he reached for the handle, he turned back and said, “And that Lin Manuel-Miranda guy. He’s pretty good. It would have been fun to get him together with the Sherman brothers.”
“Funny you should say that,” the executive laughed. “We made a sequel to Mary Poppins a few years back, and he starred in the Dick Van Dyke role and even wrote some of the songs for that movie as well.”
“Mary Poppins!” Walt exclaimed. “But clearly he’s not British.”
“Well, neither was Dick Van Dyke, if we’re being honest.”
Walt dropped his head in acknowledgement. “Ain’t that the truth. And don’t think for a moment that P.L. Travers has ever stopped letting me hear about that one, even beyond the grave. But I still say it was worth the worst Cockney accent I’ve ever heard if it gave us a chance to see that man dance.”
He returned his gaze to the executive and smiled. “Mr. Barker, it has been a pleasure and two hours very well spent. And obviously in light of the circumstances, that’s saying something.”
Then he stepped through the door and was gone.