This holiday season’s Wish is the 62nd feature film from the fabled Walt Disney Animation Studios, and the only one to be released during the animation house’s 100th anniversary. You can feel the weight of legacy in nearly every pixel of the film’s exquisitely designed frames.
Ever since Disney made the fateful choice to shut down WDAS’ hand-drawn divisions some 15 years ago, the studio has struggled with a sense of loss; the loss of history, the loss of legacy; and the loss of a little bit of that Disney magic. In the same timeframe, the company also scaled new creative heights, releasing several of their best so-called princess (or fairy tale) movies in the canon—Tangled, Frozen, Moana—and some true groundbreaking risks like Zootopia and the first Wreck-It Ralph. However, it’s never been quite the same.
This may be why nostalgia for dreams of old permeates Wish. Marketed around its blend of modern CGI animation and “the look of the traditional watercolor animation” that informed films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, Wish is an evocative blast from the past, at least visually. While I am not sure if any actual hand-drawn animation was used or if it was simply imitated, my layman’s eye recognized the fluidity and warmth from Disney movies of yesteryear as the Princess(ish) Asha rushes through a starry night, her raven hair floating beneath blooming moon flowers as she wishes upon a star. There is also the film’s strongest asset, a slowly realized villain who eventually summons forbidden magic of a familiar, and malevolent, green-and-yellow hue.
Oh yes, Wish is definitely making a nod to the OG Maleficent, as well as many other of the classic Disney Animation achievements of yore. There are easter eggs aplenty to Cinderella and Peter Pan, Snow White and Bambi. There are surely many more I missed, but the most obvious is of course Pinocchio, for the whole picture pivots on a fateful wish upon a star. The past hangs heavy over Wish, making it a pleasant stroll down memory lane for children young and young at heart. But it is the film’s concerns with its own future that finds it vaguely lacking in the here and now.
Designed as a centennial celebration, Wish begins by introducing us to a spunky new princess-like character. Her name is Asha (voiced by the reliably incandescent Ariana DeBose) and she lives on the island kingdom of Rosas, a fictional Mediterranean land off the Spanish coast. At first, it seems to be a paradise. That is what King Magnifico (Chris Pine) founded it to be. He and his Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral) have used sorcery to stay young and have invited one and all to come and live in peace and prosperity… so long as residents after their 18th birthday surrender their heart’s greatest desire, their wish, to the king.
Why the monarch initially wanted these wishes is never made clear, but after decades of rule, he seems content to hoard the wishes in his private study by the multitude, granting maybe only one or two a year to come true for a chosen few. The crown’s favorites. Seventeen-year-old Asha is content with this arrangement, but after an interview to become the sorcerer’s apprentice goes horribly awry, Asha quickly comes to second-guess a king who grants his favor on a few while leaving the rest unfulfilled. She even wishes upon a star who, believe it or not, comes to visit her as a little wordless creation that’s nearly as cute as her baby goat Valentino. The latter is even given the gift of speech by the star’s magic, which transforms the farm animal into a rich baritone (Alan Tudyk) that sounds like a cross between Patrick Stewart and Brian Blessed.
Together, along with her other young friends who haven’t surrendered their wishes to the king, these three unlikely heroes lead what slowly morphs into a revolution. It’s not a moment too soon either, because Pine’s Magnifico descends into true villainy the more he feels his power threatened by an ungrateful populace and that wretched girl.
The film’s greatest strength probably is how Wish is the first animated Disney film I can remember that takes the time to give the villain a character arc. Somewhat. Played with a reliably charismatic cadence by Pine, who walks a fine line between benevolent teacher and conceited leader of the high school cliquey pack, Magnifico doesn’t immediately seem a villain. He is in fact coded as a mentor to Asha. Yet in a bright neon-lit metaphor for the dangers of monarchy and all leaders who may wish to benefit from the aspirations of the governed, Magnifico falls into corruption because he’s terrified of his subjects developing ideas of their own—such as when he discovers Asha has a new adorable source of magic. Indeed, the little anthropomorphic star looks suspiciously like the cutesy luna stars from the Super Mario Galaxy video games.
Director Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn—working from a screenplay by Frozen’s Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore—admirably try to do something different. The problem is the details of what exactly that is are never filled in. While the picture has a morality tale about corrupt leaders that even a child can understand, only a child might be able to go with the saccharine simplicity of the film’s narrative beats. The importance of wishes to the characters, or even what the king may want them for, is never fleshed out, and the film lacks the urgency of, say, Princess Anna wanting to save her sister and prevent their kingdom from being permanently covered in frost, or simply Rapunzel needing to realize she’s being gaslit by her “mother,” who seeks to trap her in a tower forever.
The dramatic heft of Wish is jejune, even when compared to other Disney movies. One cannot help but suspect a large aspect of this is due to the songs written by Julia Michaels and JP Saxe. Michaels, whose previous credits revolve around writing pop songs for artists like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Justin Bieber, obviously knows how to connect a four-chord power anthem. But at the risk of sounding old, I never found any of the music particularly compelling. And the songs almost uniformly lacked a sense of strong storytelling, be it by way of cultivating emotional longing or just winning laughs and smiles.
Wish’s power-ballad “I Want” song, “This Wish,” is belted to the heavens with authority by DeBose, but it lacks the fragile enchantment of, say, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Part of Your World,” or the jaw-dropping oomph of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s “Let It Go.” The best modern Disney songs were crafted by Broadway talents who knew how to infuse the tunes with levity, joy, and sorrow. The music in Wish has the flatness of Top 40 radio, and is ultimately the albatross around the film’s neck that prevents it from ever going supernova.
Still, it is important to have the good grace to recognize the critiques an adult are not the same metrics used by the children for whom the film is designed. Unlike certain other animated films this year that took cues from Mario games, Wish is a sincere and ambitious family film hoping to become a lifelong touchstone for the children who see it. The movie misses the mark in recapturing the same Disney magic it so romanticizes, including in efforts Buck and Lee previously worked on, but it’s a heartfelt and sweet effort that’s gorgeously animated and does feature other aspects that play as intended—such as any time Tudyk’s vocal performance of a baby goat is allowed to defy the laws of nature and go ham.
This will undoubtedly be a favorite movie for many kids who see it this Thanksgiving; for their parents, it’ll do.
Wish opens in theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 22.