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Meet Felipe Zapata, botanical adviser for ‘Encanto’

Disney went to great lengths to accurately depict the plants in Colombia. The wax palm is the tallest palm tree in the world and is designated the country’s national tree.
Courtesy Image
Walt Disney Studios
Disney went to great lengths to accurately depict the plants in Colombia. The wax palm is the tallest palm tree in the world and is designated the country’s national tree.

Disney has a huge hit on its hands with “Encanto.” The animated film follows the Madrigal family that lives in the mountains of Colombia and one young family member’s quest to restore the magic that makes their home a special place.

While the songs in “Encanto” have made it big (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” tops the Billboard Hot 100), also contributing to the film’s success are its stunning visuals.

In Disney’s attempt to authentically represent Colombia’s environment, the studio enlisted Felipe Zapata. A native of Colombia and a former St. Louisan, Zapata served as the film’s botanical adviser.

Now an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Zapata earned his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and studied at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“It was truly amazing for me to be contacted by Disney to do this,” Zapata explained on St. Louis on the Air.

Botanist Felipe Zapata earned his Ph.D. from UMSL and studied at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Walt Disney Studios
Botanist Felipe Zapata credits his time in St. Louis for helping prepare him to serve as the botanical adviser for "Encanto."

He said his job entailed meeting with Disney filmmakers nearly every month, talking about Colombia’s biodiversity and digging into details around specific plants. The animators were especially curious about the wax palm. The tallest palm tree in the world is designated as Colombia’s national tree.

“I think that the wax palm was kind of the main character in terms of the plants that they wanted to have right,” Zapata explained. He said filmmakers asked him detailed questions about how the plant grows as well as the look of the leaves and flowers.

Colombia’s on-screen representation came with a bit of Disney magic. Colombia has varied ecosystems, Zapata explained — low and high elevations as well as a coastal climate. In “Encanto,” each of those regions are essentially brought together into the Madrigal family's magical home.

Zapata credits his time in St. Louis, which he moved to from South America for his studies, for helping prepare him for work on the film. Working with professors at UMSL and the Missouri Botanical Garden, he studied the evolution of plants in the Andes mountains.

“When I talk to people and explain to them that I went to St. Louis to study plants from the Andes, people don't believe it,” Zapata said. “But I guess that what people don't know is that actually, St. Louis and the Missouri Botanical Garden — it's one of the few places in the U.S. and in the world where there is a super strong focus on research in the tropics.”

In addition to UMSL, Zapata credits the graduate programs at Washington University and St. Louis University for contributing to a robust community of international biologists who study plants in the tropics from St. Louis.

Hear what it was like to work with Disney on 'Encanto'

Seeing those plants on screen when “Encanto” was finally unveiled felt like a true gift.

“It was really amazing because they really capture the reality of the plants, but also the magical parts that Disney added to the movie,” he said.

He admitted that seeing his native country so beautifully depicted almost made him homesick. Even so, he’s grateful for the film.

“I hope that one of the messages of the movie is to show people the magic and the beauty,” Zapata said. “And that people who have always seen, perhaps, bad news about Colombia or a bad image of Colombia, they can clearly see that Colombia is actually a great place, a beautiful country in terms of diversity, food, culture — everything.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.