Review by James Lindorf
We may know it as The Walt Disney Company today, but the company known for its theme parks and animated films was founded on October 16th, 1923, in Los Angeles as the Disney Brothers Studio. The company found immediate success with projects for “Alice’s Wonderland” and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Still, it was the 1929 introduction of “Steamboat Willie,” later renamed Mickey Mouse, that would bring Walt and Roy international acclaim and allow them to change the landscape of entertainment for the following century. What started with the brothers and a handful of animators is now the largest media company in the world, encompassing brands like ABC, ESPN, Lucas Film, and Marvel. All this year, the company has been celebrating its 100th anniversary at parks around the world, on Disney+, and now it is time to do it in theaters with “Wish.” Disney’s 62nd animated film feature film opens everywhere on November 22nd, hoping to pull in big numbers over the extended Thanksgiving weekend.
If you wanted to make an event film to celebrate 100 years of Disney, Chris Buck (Tarzan, Frozen, Frozen II) would be at or near the top of the shortlist. The co-director and co-writer brought in some familiar faces from his Disney past to help bring “Wish” to life. First is Fawn Veerasunthorn, who worked as a storyboard artist on “Frozen” and is making her directorial premiere with “Wish.” The next familiar face is Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Zootopia), a frequent writer and producer on many successful Disney projects. The lone new face in the writer’s room is Alison Moore (Manhunt, Beauty and the Beast), who, to date, only has experience writing for tween and adult television series. All four were given story by credits, but the screenplay for “Wish” was penned by Lee and Moore.
“Wish” takes place in the idyllic kingdom of Rosas, where wishes are protected and occasionally granted by the powerful wizard King Magnifico (Chris Pine). The story follows Asha (Ariana DeBose), who is just shy of her 18th birthday and on the cusp of becoming the sorcerer’s apprentice, the most coveted role in Rosas. When the sharp-witted idealist learns the sad fate awaiting the wishes of most of her community, including her mother Sakina (Natasha Rothwell) and 100-year-old grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber), it sets her on a collision course with Magnifico. Overpowered and outranked, Asha makes a wish so powerful that it is answered in the shape of a little ball of limitless energy she calls Star. With the help of her friends, family, and a little cosmic energy, Asha will stand up and fight fear with courage. The rest of the voice cast includes Jennifer Kumiyama (Awkward) and Evan Peters (Mare of Easttown) as Asha’s best friends and Alan Tudyk (Resident Alien) as her goat Valentino.
Asha may not be the typical Disney Princess, but she does have many of the typical princess accessories. She has multiple musical numbers, a cute animal sidekick, and a palace she is always trying to get into or away from. She even has a large group of friends, where each one has a specific physical or personality trait; there is an introvert, a lethargic one, a crabby one, and one who is constantly sneezing. Asha also has an art style similar to many of the older films. Most “Wish” is done in a digital 2-dimensional watercolor animation instead of the entirely traditional cell shading, but there are some modern flourishes throughout. The art style took a little getting used to because the blending of styles isn’t as in your face as in the Spider-verse films, but it eventually fades to the background and is just the look of Rosas.
Disney animated films have been beloved by generations since the release of “Snow White” in 1937. In that time, there have been billions of dollars in revenue, even more laughs, a fair number of tears, and an unmeasurable number of times parents have had to listen to “Let it Go.” Creating something that lives up to and honors all those memories is an unenviable task for the writing team and one they couldn’t fully accomplish. “Wish” is Luisa from “Encanto” in movie form. The writers devised a story and then started piling references and callbacks onto its shoulders. Luisa struggled with her tasks and sense of identity if she could not complete them, while “Wish” lost its sense of self because of the tasks. Asha can’t make choices or have friends that make sense for her because it has to pay homage to the history of Disney. While Asha isn’t living her best life, she is in at least 90% of the film, so we at least have a clear understanding of her motivations, but the same can’t be said for Magnifico. He is first introduced as a benevolent King with a humble and even tragic backstory, and somewhere between the chases and magic spells, the movie and the characters forget that. The conclusion of his story is the most surprising part of the movie. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it does not feel like the planned end of his story arc. Magnifico could have been one of the best Disney villains ever, but the lack of development causes him to devolve into a maniacally laughing, mustache-twirling caricature, like Rasputin from “Anastasia.” And he doesn’t even get the fun of having a Bartok offering to give Asha a “HA! And a HI-YA! And then a OOH-WAH!.”
“Wish” isn’t the first Disney movie to have a muddled plot or lackluster villain only to be saved by great music; see “Tarzan.” Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) is fantastic as Asha, with a powerful and emotional voice that grabs your attention. Chris Pine is an actor first, but he does an excellent job as Magnifico, at least as good as Jeremy Irons as Scar. The film’s original songs were written by Julia Michaels, the recording artist known for her single “Issues” and chart-topping hits “Sorry” and “Lose You to Love Me.” It is no surprise that Michaels imbued the songs with great depth and emotion, but she also may have forgotten they were for a family movie. The best song in the film is “More for Us,” it is uplifting and has a strong hook, but it also feels like something only a professional singer can pull off. It is the kind of song you listen to after failing a test or missing out on a promotion while planning the next steps of your life, not what a 6-year-old belts out in the back seat. The rest of the songs are fine, but they lack that “it” factor that would make them memorable.
If “Wish” had been planned for the year 103 or 98, it could have flown as high as Star instead of crashing to earth in a beautiful but ultimately disappointing display. It is a great-looking film, and there are standout moments that family members of all ages will enjoy, like the call to arms song “What I Know Now,” which is drawn like a fantastic stage production. Unfortunately, in an effort to pay respects to everything that came before, they made a facsimile of those great films. “Wish” is not a bad movie and is far from the bottom of the Disney barrel, but they wanted a North Star that could guide them into the next century of success, and what they got is just another part of a constellation earning 3 out of 5 stars.
Genre: Kids & family, Fantasy, Adventure, Comedy, Animation, Musical
Original Language: English
Director: Chris Buck, Fawn Veerasunthorn
Producer: Peter Del Vecho, Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster-Jones
Writer: Jennifer Lee, Allison Moore, Chris Buck
Release Date: November 22nd, 2023
Runtime: 1h 32m
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Production Co: Walt Disney Animation Studios
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