Ever since Snow White sent her wish for true love echoing down into the wishing well back in 1937, Walt Disney Animation has spent a century telling stories of dreams coming true through dazzling visual and musical spectacles. For many people throughout the world, animated Disney films are their very first introduction to the magic of movies and storytelling; from Cinderella to Beauty and the Beast to The Little Mermaid to The Lion King to Frozen and beyond, it seems like nearly everyone has a favorite that’s captured some part of their heart and imagination.
While there have been obvious ups and downs throughout Disney’s extensive history, they’ve mostly managed to maintain their monopoly on childhoods and continue to shift the culture at large. The Walt Disney Company is now seemingly “too big to fail,” becoming one of, if not the juggernaut of the entertainment industry and a shining beacon of all the wonders, possibilities, and evils of American capitalism and consumerism.
Wish is the latest in a long line of generation-defining animated features from the studio (some great, some not so great) and doubles as a celebration of 100 years of the Walt Disney Company. Instead of making a couple billion dollars by letting the AI responsible for the sins of Ralph Breaks the Internet put together some multiverse thing where every Disney character ever (toss in Marvel and Star Wars too, why not?) teams up or whatever, Wish is mercifully an original story that’s surprisingly light on the kind of self-congratulatory indulgence we’ve come to fear from the Mouse half the time.
Still, tradition is tradition. Obligatory “welcome to our town” song? Check. Magic? Check. Talking animals? Check. Classic Disney heroine? Check. Scene-stealing villain? Check. Disney’s Wish plays all the hits and ends up showcasing both the best and worst of what the studio’s storytelling is all about. It makes for a middle-of-the-road type of movie, perhaps a display of a company in suspended (heh) animation, but one that still delivers the kind of strong positive messaging that they’ve built their reputation on.
Directed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn and written by Jennifer Lee & Allison Moore, Wish follows an idealistic and enthusiastic girl named Asha (Ariana DeBose) who lives in the wondrous kingdom of Rosas. Asha loves where she calls home, literally working as a tour guide where she shows off the grandiose charm and magnificence of the Southern European/Mediterranean-inspired city, including the many, many displays of adoration towards its ruler, King Magnifico (Chris Pine).
The people of Rosas put their absolute trust in their king, quite literally giving him the deepest wishes of their hearts. Magnifico is the sole user of magic in the land, and his kingdom is built on the promise of taking the burdens of the hardship of life off his people – once they give Magnifico their wish, it’s erased from their minds. No more struggling to achieve those goals and desires! No more disappointment when it doesn’t work out! Less stress! Less… existential dread maybe? All they have to do is sit back and relax, enjoy the finer things in life, and wait for their oh-so-benevolent king to eventually make that forgotten wish come true with that magic of his.
There’s a solid and nuanced story here within the usual fairy tale beats. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee are the duo behind the phenomenon of Frozen and its sequel Frozen II, and they prove once again that they know how to take a familiar format and make it feel fresh. Asha gets the expected “I Want” song that every Disney princess does, however, what she wants is something not just for her, but for everyone. Magnifico is a clear megalomaniacal villain, though one that rules with a handsome smile and a kind facade rather than brute force and menace.
The animation style of Wish, a stirring CG blend of the House of Mouse’s usual rounded CalArts designs with the watercolor look of their classic films, is another strength. The money is thankfully there on the screen and falls in line with the movie’s entire concept of doing things just a little bit differently while still adhering to a look that is always going to be recognizably Disney. But, alas, for every interesting step forward in Disney’s Wish there’s a step back.
We must address the goat. When Asha learns the darker truths about Rosas and Magnifico, she makes a plea to the stars and is immediately answered by a literal, chibi-like star that falls from the sky. The star is great. The star is innocent. It’s a good, cute, and pleasant character. However, early on in the plot, Star sprinkles some magic on Asha’s pet goat, Valentino, giving him the ability to speak. Big mistake. Valentino sure does say a lot throughout the brisk hour and a half of Wish. None of it is very funny though.
There’s still some comedy to be found in this movie – Asha’s group of forgettable human friends score some chuckles and Star gets some laughs – but none of it comes from the main comedic relief character. That’s pulling a Treasure Planet. Alan Tudyk, a wonderful actor, has been a staple of the past decade or so of Disney Animation, voicing a wide array of funny standout characters. Valentino isn’t one of them. This goat should’ve stayed silent.
The music, with songs from Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice and a score by Dave Metzger, is good but ultimately feels a bit underwhelming. For something that’s supposedly celebrating a century of Disney magic, you would think we could get some of those grandiose, generation-defining musical theater bangers the studio is known for. Instead, Wish settles for mostly understated talk-songs that fail to catch a memorable melody. You can appreciate that Wish is a true and proper musical with just the right amount of tracks (Disney movies that only have two or three songs are frustrating!), yet outside of Asha’s “This Wish” and Magnifico’s “This is the Thanks I Get?!”, you’ll be left wanting more out of this landmark anniversary film’s soundtrack.
Still, there’s enough of the usual Disney magic to keep this animated film afloat. Wish fittingly explores the very idea of how wishes do or don’t come true in a way Disney hasn’t challenged since The Princess and the Frog. As with the best Disney movies, there are important and timely (yet timeless!) themes present, especially for younger audiences. As with the worst Disney movies, there are a few lame self-referential jokes that will conjure up a million different yet identical videos and articles about the “Easter Eggs” you might’ve missed if you went to the bathroom during that part.
My three-year-old left the screening spinning around and singing the movie’s main theme. This was only his second movie theater experience, and while he’s much more attached to Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie, he still seemed to enjoy himself. The ads for Wish (which often come on in between episodes of Paw Patrol) had excited him, the film kept his attention the entire time as he munched on M&Ms, he loved a sequence involving some dancing chickens, and he asked to listen to the songs again on the ride back home. But he still didn’t laugh at anything Valentino the talking goat said!