Tony Morales Is in Charge of Soundtracking Disney's First Latina Princess

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For many of Disney's 90-plus years, diversity came only with respect to species. Sure, you could watch a crab share a scene with a mermaid, but good luck finding a black person.

That changed in 2009 with the release of The Princess and the Frog, a film featuring Disney's first African American princess. It was slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

This Friday, Disney will reach another long overdue but nonetheless important milestone when it debuts the TV show Elena of Avalor, Disney's first project starring a Latina princess. Besides our obvious interest in all things Latin, Miami has another reason to be excited about the new animated character. She is voiced by Miami native Aimee Carrero.

Thanks to a few preliminary images, we know what Elena will look like: light-brown skin, dark wavy hair, and big almond eyes. The series will follow her as she learns what it takes to rule Avalor after defeating an evil sorceress who, presumably, did not want Elena to rule — or to have any fun at all, really. Using elements of Latin and Hispanic mythology, Elena will find her footing with help from her sister Isabel and spirit guide Zuzo, a figure from Mayan mythology. It's sure to give Latino and Hispanic children the world over a more relatable hero than the sapphire-eyed royalty they've been fed for most of their lives.

But what will Elena sound like? In any Disney production, the songs that characters sing and dance to can be as impactful as the characters themselves.

Tony Morales is one of the people charged with soundtracking Elena, a task he says is important for many reasons, two of which include his 6- and 9-year-old daughters. Morales is of Mexican descent and hopes Elena can provide his children with something other animated princesses haven't been able to give. "I'm definitely in support of any sort of great role models for my children," he says. "Disney having its first Latina princess is going to be huge for them because they are of Latin descent, and they'll see a little bit of themselves in her."

Also, working on a Disney princess will, he hopes, earn him some much valuable dad cred in their young eyes.

Morales was born in California and lives in Los Angeles. When he was a kid, his tastes were supremely American. "I do remember being a huge fan, for whatever reason, of Glen Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy.'" Morales must have been 2 or 3 years old at the time and, no, he still doesn't understand why that song spoke to him.

By age 6, though, he had matured into a raving Kiss fan. He got his first guitar when he was 9 and hasn't lost interest in music since.

He attended Boston's Berklee College of Music with the intention of becoming a studio musician. One day, at a friend's suggestion, he enrolled in an analysis of film class and fell in love with Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack for The Omen, a horror classic about the birth of the Antichrist. It's a far cry from Disney, but from then on, he knew he wanted to compose music for moving pictures.

These days, Morales cocomposes for series such as the CBS drama Scorpion and Netflix's acclaimed Bloodline.

But with Elena, he's faced with a very tall task: to somehow represent Latin music as a whole in just a handful of 30-minute episodes. Each project Morales undertakes usually begins with conversations with various members of the creative team. To write the music, he has to understand the story and the characters — their fears, motivations, and tone.

This endeavor was no different. After some outlining, Morales decided to play a bit with the archetypal Disney form. "My approach... was to run the kind of Disney, traditional, universal sound — which is orchestral in nature — through a bit of a Latin filter." Morales' job is to provide the background music in the show, the more instrumental side of things. Each episode will feature an original song, which will be written by the project's songwriter and music director John Kavanaugh, who has worked with Disney before on Sofia the First.

For his part, Morales did a ton of research and listened to genres ranging from flamenco, folk, and Peruvian to contemporary. "The one style that I gravitated toward as a composer was mostly folk music," he says. Morales listened to traditional folk music from Mexico, Spain, and South America and found its rhythms to translate well in an orchestral setting.

The first two episodes of the series will see Elena embark on an adventure to the sounds of mariachi and salsa. Despite the lofty ambitions for Elena, Morales sees this show as any other project. "At the end of the day," Morales says, "my job and any composer's job is really to service the picture and the story and the characters."

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