Not many girls can say they’re a 16-year-old Crown Princess who is in charge of ruling an entire kingdom. But many girls (and boys!) will be able to relate to the go-getter personality of Elena, the latest addition to the lineup of Disney Princesses.
“What I love about it is that as she’s coming of age, she’s also learning how to rule,” reflected Silvia Olivas, the “Elena of Avalor” story editor. “It’s fantastic because you get to see her when she’s making her mistakes and she’s trying to figure it out. As a storyteller that opens up all these story opportunities for us.”
In fact, Elena (voiced by Aimee Carrero) fights bad guys and soars on the backs of Jaquins (flying jaguars) in a gorgeous red dress and heels—no easy feat for any teenager.
“Early on, one of the artists asked me if she should have flats or heels,” said Olivas. “I said, she has to have heels! She’s Latina! I do everything in heels. She can do everything in heels!”
This represented Elena’s character trait of unwavering tenacity and determination.
“She’s a character who will go out and save the kingdom herself. She’s not going to wait for someone else to do it,” said story creator and executive producer Craig Gerber. “If that means she has to go out and do it in her ball gown, then she’s going to do it in her ball gown… It doesn’t have to be either or. You can dress up and be an adventurer. For her it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing—when the time comes to go out and adventure, she answers the call.”
Disney Channel’s Elena of Avalor sets precedents in many ways. Not only is she actually running her own kingdom, but she is also Disney’s first Latina princess. There was definitely pressure on the writers to deliver a character that would stand alongside other classic Disney Princesses.
“To do that you have to create a strong character who is unique and memorable with strengths and weaknesses—someone you want to follow on a journey. You also have to build a fairytale world around her that measures up to these great fairytale kingdoms that have come before us,” explained Gerber. “It is really interesting working at Disney because you have this amazing heritage of storytelling that is inspirational and motivational—it helps you create what you’re doing, but you also have to live up to it. You have to take the baton and you have to do your part to be able to hand the baton to someone else. You don’t want to be the person to drop the baton.”
“That’s a tremendous amount of responsibility,” added Olivas. “It means we’re super ambitious with every single episode. When I first met with Craig, he started talking about how every episode needs to be a mini-feature. That just meant that I have to up my game even more with these stories, especially in these days when kids have seen everything… We took the baton and I hope we’re doing well with it.”
Much of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of the diverse cast of characters (in fact, 75% of the voice cast is of Latin or Hispanic descent). Elena along with her friends and family are intended to have story arcs that will continue potentially through the next five years in real time.
“We are intentionally going to grow the characters, and hopefully the audience will grow with the show,” said Gerber. “It makes the story feel more epic when you see the characters go through a journey that takes time. In this case you know she’s going from becoming crown princess to hopefully becoming queen. That’s the journey—let’s see if she makes it there.”
Elena is certainly on her way, especially with the help of her handpicked Grand Council, which includes her grandparents (voiced by Julia Vera and Emiliano Diaz), her cousin Esteban (Christian Lanz), and her best friend Naomi (Jillian Rose Reed).
“When we got together and started talking about exactly who they would be, as far as the grandparents, I needed them to be like my own grandparents. They had so much to say. And when they spoke, I listened,” said Olivas about the inspiration behind Elena’s grandparents. She continued to talk about Elena’s friendship with a girl from the pier. “Naomi… she looks at her like this is my best girl friend. We’ll go through thick and thin together. And they’re learning from each other. Naomi isn’t a royal—sometimes we call her Naomi from the block. She’s the real common girl.”
Olivas has an 8-year-old son and wanted to create male characters for him to look up to.
“I want some strong male characters,” said Olivas. “To have these strong Latino role models look up to Elena and respect her position as crown princess is just amazing.”
The Grand Council was a solution to making themes about ruling and leadership interesting and more emotionally compelling as it involves Elena’s family.
“It rings true to being a Latino family. Everybody weighs in on decisions. I think that makes total sense,” said Olivas.
In fact, many aspects of the show are inspired by Latin American culture. For example, Elena’s spirit guide Zuzo (voiced by Keith Ferguson) is based on the Mayan belief of spirit animals who watch over their humans. Olivas talked about an upcoming Day of the Dead episode in which Elena learns she has the power to see ghosts on the special holiday.
“We have a lot of storylines based on Latino myths and legends,” said Olivas. “In my family, we basically celebrate Day of the Dead everyday. We have an altar all year long. There’s a candle burning for people who passed away in our family. We honor our ancestors everyday. When I was a kid, when we would go to the cemetery we were visiting. We would have picnics and play Frisbee. There was the idea that it wasn’t over when you died here—your life still goes on.”
The episode also addresses Elena and her sister Isabel (voiced by Jenna Ortega) coping with the loss of their parents.
“I’m proud of that episode because it does tackle the issue of dealing with the death of a loved one, and not many animated shows do that,” said Gerber. “[The episode] was also another way to integrate a lot of Latino culture in the show through holidays and traditions. When you see magical characters from our show, they’re taken from myths whether they’re Mexican or Chilean or Brazilian. We look for interesting folklore.”
Episode 3 of Season 1 featured a spin on a Chilean legend: a volcano monster named Cherufe, a character who was renamed Charoca in the show, voiced by Tituss Burgess.
“In that way we are telling all these new fairytales that are inspired by Latin American stories and sensibilities,” said Gerber. “People are very used to seeing European folktales and fairytales. Now it’s exciting to be able to present a whole new set of influences and stories.”
Complete with not only Latin styles of music including merengue, salsa, banda, reggaeton and bossa nova, but also other styles such as hip hop and R&B, Elena of Avalor finally brings an underrepresented culture and heritage to the screen. Olivas and Gerber praised songwriter/music director John Kavanaugh, the cast, and the live musicians who bring the music to life, whether it is a song to set up the problem in the first act or a song to inspire the characters in the third act.
“When you hear the music, it just moves you the way it should at that point in the script,” said Olivas. “It seems so honest and authentic because it is.”
Don’t miss out on Elena and co. singing and adventuring every Friday at 7:30 p.m. on Disney Channel!
Elena also makes her Disney World debut on Aug. 11, the first princess to be introduced by Cinderella and Prince Charming.