Disney’s Wish Safely Celebrates Almost a Century of Animated Magic
According to Disney’s 1950 classic Cinderella, a dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep. In the studio’s latest animated extravaganza, Wish, wishes are dreams better left to be protected by a powerful sorcerer and forever forgotten by the person who originally gave them life. Much like this new film’s determined heroine, Asha (voiced by Ariana DeBose), I like that former option better, too.
She’s the one who accidentally discovers that the sorcerer in question, the seemingly benevolent ruler of Rosas, King Magnifico (Chris Pine), actually has almost zero intention to grant the wishes he’s extracted from his subjects over the decades. Frankly, he’s afraid of them, a personal tragedy forever coloring how he looks at allowing people to attain their most fervent desires. Instead, he looks at it as a kindness that he’s taken these aspirational longings away from all adults 18 years of age and up, and the fact they’ll never know what they’re now missing keeps Magnifico firm in his belief he’s doing the right thing.
Asha disagrees. Now that she’s witnessed the beauty of what the king is keeping all to himself and knowing firsthand how the extracting of wishes has changed many of her friends at their very core, essentially making them a hollow shell of who they were, the teenager becomes determined to do something about this. Singing to the heavens above for a little help, a happy-go-lucky “Wishing Star” comes to her aid, the peppy magical entity descending into Asha’s arms to help free all the wishes from Magnifico’s grasp.
I’m a big proponent of judging a motion picture for what it is and not what I wanted — or even think — it should be. Wish makes doing that difficult. In and of itself, the film is perfectly fine. It’s beautifully animated, DeBose and Pine shine, it has a handful of terrific songs, and directors Chris Buck (Frozen) and Fawn Veerasunthorn keep things running at a satisfyingly brisk pace. There are a couple of lovely set pieces, not the least of which is Asha’s interview with Magnifico to become his apprentice, in which the two share a musical moment with the wishes and the former discovers the latter isn’t the leader she thought he was. I was never bored at any point.
Yet it is also abundantly clear that Disney’s newest release is designed to help the studio celebrate its centennial anniversary and pay homage to over nine decades of feature-length animated history. There are continual callouts and in-jokes referencing everything from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to last year’s Strange World to all points in between. It’s a fantastical musical-theater collage of Disney’s greatest (and even its not-so-greatest) hits, and if I were back in college, I’d take bets someone would have come up with a drinking game involving every allusion to a Disney tale during this story’s brief 95-minute running time.
This creates an oddly uncomfortable imbalance inside the narrative. Things are simple. They are very straightforward. Little kids are all having a wonderful time. But the filmmakers keep spotlighting similar Disney efforts that took greater risks, ones that didn’t mind offering up complex concepts for younger viewers and their parents to dissect and discuss afterward.
Case in point? King Magnifico’s big villain song. It happens right before the sorcerer falls off the deep end and embraces his dark side, and it’s a catchy little number that Pine performs rather splendidly. But its style and its placement directly recall similar moments in films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, and even The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it immediately pales in comparison. The song is toothless, and as such is oddly forgettable. Similar moments just like this one are littered throughout the production.
I do love the look of Wish. The animation is some watercolor CG hybrid that gives things a surrealistic aesthetic that’s frequently lovely. There’s also an underlying metacommentary on the “white savior” trope that comes amazingly close to saying something substantive. Close, but not quite, because like almost everything else here, even this element is played so safe, it becomes more frustrating than it is praiseworthy.
Even so, if I judge Disney’s latest for what it is and not for what it may have been, I find it very difficult to tell potential viewers to stay away. It’s well made and suitably charming. Best of all, Asha is a divine heroine, and that Wishing Star is a lovable goofball younger kids are going to go nuts over.
But it’s immediately obvious Wish has loftier ambitions, ones it refuses to rise to and annoyingly undercuts at every opportunity. The magic spell it casts is minimal at best, lasting about as long as it takes for the end credits to complete their crawl.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)