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How a PR problem led to the creation of Disney's first Latina princess, "Elena of Avalor"

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How a PR problem led to the creation of Disney's first Latina princess, "Elena of Avalor"

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Back in October of 2012, the Internet temporarily lost its mind when Jamie Mitchell - the producer of the then-soon-to-launch "Sofia the First" television series - mistakenly identified this show's title character as Disney's first Latina princess.

Princess Sofia and her mother, Queen Miranda. Copyright Disney 
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Within a day or so, The Mouse House was walking back Mitchell's off-the-cuff comment. But where everyone else saw an embarrassing situation, Craig Gerber -- the creator and executive producer of this then-new Disney Junior animated series - saw an opportunity.

"Given how vocal the Latino community was when this story first hit the press, and how disappointed they were when the Company revealed that Sofia wasn't actually going to be Disney's first Latina princess ... Well, there was this obvious hunger for a character that could maybe perhaps represent that community. And I thought that that hunger really needed to be addressed," Craig recalled during a recent phone interview.

So after "Sofia the First" was successfully launched in early 2013 (with this animated series being so quickly embraced by Disney Junior viewers that it was then renewed for Season 2 less than two months after Season One made its debut), Gerber circled back on this short-lived online controversy. He then began to wonder: If Disney actually were to develop its very first Latina princess, what would that character be like? More importantly, how could the kingdom that she ruled over specifically reflect and represent Latino culture & tradition?

Brandy and Whitney Houston in "The Wonderful World of
Disney" 's 1997 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's
"Cinderella." Copyright American Broadcasting
Companies, Inc. All rights reserved 

Just so you know: A Latina Disney princess isn't actually a new idea. Back in 1999, as a follow-up to ABC's hugely successful production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" (which originally aired on "The Wonderful World of Disney" on November 2, 1997), the Mouse House toyed with the idea of creating an all-new musical-for-television. One that would have set the tale of Sleeping Beauty in Spain. Stephen Flaherty & Lynne Arhens (i.e., the Tony Award-winning team behind "Ragtime" & "Anastasia") turned in a score that Stephen described as having " ... lots of Spanish guitars and rhythms." And screenwriter Richard Kramer turned in a teleplay which was to have had Whitney Houston play a Mesoamerican version of Maleficent.

Sadly, this genuinely-intriguing-sounding premise was never put into production. Whereas Craig's Latina Disney princess project really hit the ground running. The team that was developing this new animated series spent a full year researching the folklore of this region. Not to mention meeting with all manner of experts when it came to Latino culture. With Gerber's goal being that - if The Walt Disney Company was indeed going to build a TV show around its first-ever Latina princess - then this character & the world that she lived in was going to be as authentic as possible.

The end result of all this hard work - "Elena of Avalor" - debuts tonight on the Disney Channel tonight at 7 p.m ET / PT. But don't tune into this brand-new animated series and expect to see some idealized Latina. A role model who's completely flawless.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"We have this epic storyline mapped out for 'Elena of Avalor.' One that - we hope, provided that viewers actually embrace Disney's first Latina princess - we'll then get to tell over the next five years. Which is why - when we first meet the crown princess of Avalor - Elena isn't perfect. She's this 16 year-old girl who -- while she genuinely wants to rule over her kingdom with kindness & wisdom - doesn't necessarily have all of the skills that she needs to do that job yet, " Gerber explained.

"Our very first episode actually shows that Elena doesn't yet have the patience to be queen. But what's great about this character is that she's smart enough to recognize that she doesn't have that skill yet and works to correct that," Craig continued. "Over time, thanks to all of the adventures she'll be going on, Elena will gain the experience she needs to rule wisely. But there will be lots of twists & turns along the way. There's an especially big surprise coming at the end of Season One that I hope 'Elena of Avalor' viewers will enjoy."

And helping Elena to acquire some of the skills that she'll need to become Queen is Zuzo, her spirit guide. This fox-like magical character actually came out of some of the initial research that Craig & Co. did for "Elena of Avalor." To be specific, the belief that a Mayan tribe from southern Mexico had that everyone has a spirit double in the animal world.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And if you look closely at Zuzo, you'll see that - swirling around him - are these tiny little magical symbols that are actually Mayan glyphs," Gerber stated. "That's an idea that David Cárdenas - who's this really talented character designer that we have working on 'Elena of Avalor' - came up with. Everyone who's been working on this show has been slipping in touches like that. They recognize how important 'Elena' is to the Latino community. Which is why they've all been doing things to ensure that this new animated series is as beautiful & authentic as possible."

Seriously, no detail was too large - or too small - to overlook and/or obsess about when it came to "Elena of Avalor." Take - for example - the palace where Disney's first Latina princess lives. Because this structure is supposed to take its cues from Caribbean, Mexican and Spanish Colonial architecture, it's loaded with wrought iron and tile.

Better yet, check out that musical instrument that Mateo (he's that wizard-in-training that Elena sometimes takes along on her adventures) wields as his wand. That tamborita is inspired by a drum that Mapuche shamen in Chile used to use. And just like with Zuzo, whenever Mateo performs a spell, the magical little specks that come bursting forth from his tamborita are actually based on Mayan glyphs.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And because Craig knew that Elena would wind up being compared to all of the Disney Princesses who came before her ... Well, that's why he had Elliot Bour brought in to be the supervising director of this new Disney Channel series.

"Back when he worked at Disney Feature Animation - Florida, Elliot helped create some of the studio's most popular modern animated features. And he's really been pushing our production team to approach 'Elena of Avalor' not as a TV series. But to take on a feature film mentality when it comes to the characters, the animation and the overall scope of this show. Which I really hope comes across when people start to watch 'Elena' on the Disney Channel and Disney Junior," Craig enthused.

And managers at all levels of the Mouse House clearly believe in what Gerber and his team are trying to accomplish with "Elena of Avalor." Which is why Disney Consumer Products is supporting the arrival of the Company's first Latina princess with a big retail push. And Disney Parks & Resorts are helping to make would-be "Elena" viewers aware of the Company's first Latina princess by having a walk-around version of this cartoon character begin meeting-&-greeting with theme park Guests next month.

Photo by Jim Hill

And to think: This potent new IP came along all because Disney once had a PR problem. Well, you know what they say. When life hands you lemons, make limonada. 

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on Friday, July 22, 2016

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  • Alternate Story:

    Tween TV star Ariel Winter has grown up to be an out of control party girl that Disney Junior really shouldn't be associated with so they're finding a new Princess to promote in hopes that the other one will fade away before the actress gets involved in her first celebrity scandal.

  • They spent a lot of effort creating the backstory with the cultural references. The other princesses used less cultural references and it appears their cultural roots were scrubbed. Who would know Snow White was based on German origins? Mulan isn't even a princess so she was promoted. This Latin princess appears to be Mexican/North American instead of European or South American. I wonder how such a diverse community will react to such specificity. The boxes are checked, but the direct to Disney Channel means it does not benefit from a wider launch, and thus wider reach.

  • Too bad Disney feels she is only good enough for television.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Wow. Troll very much?

    Look, "Elena of Avalor" was created by people who work at Disney Television Animation so that this show could then air on the Disney Channel. Complaining about why an animated television series isn't being shown in movie theaters is like complaining about why a cheeseburger doesn't taste like chateaubriand. Yeah, they're both types of beef. Both delicious in their own way. But cheeseburgers & chateaubriand are prepared in very different ways and ...

    Okay. Enough with the labored TV series / movies / cuts-of-meat analogy. My point is ... As you can see by the final photo in this article, the Disney Store now has three full bays of "Elena of Avalor" merchandise. The walk-around version of this new Disney Princess will be debuting in the Disney Parks within days. That's just what the newer Disney Princesses like Rapunzel, Merida, Anna & Elsa got. I'm also hearing that there's a please-welcome-our-newest-Princess-to-the-Magic-Kingdom ceremony slated for Elena that will be held one morning this Fall in front of WDW's Cinderella Castle. Which will put Elena on the exact same footing as all of the other Disney Princesses. 

    So where exactly do you see Disney's first Latina princess getting the short end of the stick here? You've got the full might of the Mouse House's marketing team pushing "Elena" (i.e., both the Disney Channel show & the character herself) right now.

    Or is this one of those "I may not have any real information but I have an opinion" situations that Internet trolls love to use to kick-start a faux controversy?  Based on how you phrased your "Here's-some-gasoline.-Does-anyone-else-have-a-match?" comment, K, I'm thinking that you were hoping to get something going here.

    Sorry. Not going to happen. Thanks for playing, though.

  • Ouch

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