The opening moments of Wish, the new film from Walt Disney Feature Animation, play like a promise. They evoke the golden age of Disney animated features—Pinnochio, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—by showing a storybook that magically opens and begins to spin a fairy tale. If the rest of the movie had played with this much grace, the studio might have made a bonafide classic deserving of mention alongside its most iconic titles. Instead, Wish shows more sanctity for the Disney brand than for the imagination or ethical lessons in fairy tales.
Wish tells the story of King Magnifico (Chris Pine), a sorcerer-king who used his magic to build the Utopian island of Rosas. Once a year, he grants the wish of one of his subjects. As the film opens, Magnifico also wants to find a new apprentice. The idealistic, young Asha (Ariana DeBose) interviews for the job, and tells Magnifico that she wants nothing more than for her 100-year-old grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber), to have his wish finally granted.
Magnifico declines, and Asha learns that he harvests most of the townspeople’s wishes so they won’t know the pain of having their desires go unfulfilled. So, like many a Disney heroine, Asha wishes on a star. Much to her surprise, the actual star comes to Earth, looking like something that stepped out of a Super Mario game. Star begins using his magic to grant Asha’s wishes, but Magnifico senses Star’s arrival. The king vows to control Star’s magic at all costs.
A Falling Star…Lookout Below
As directed by Chris Buck (Tarzan, Frozen) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (who makes her directorial debut here), Wish continues to evoke classic Disney films through its art direction. The backgrounds resemble the oil painting backdrops of Sleeping Beauty, while the design of Rosas suggests the Centaur Sequence from Fantasia. DeBose, as Asha, also feels suited to play Disney heroine: her performance suggests the right amount of pluck and determination, while her singing feels tailor-made for a Disney ballad. Pine, too, evokes Disney Lotharios of yore—Gaston, Sir Kay in The Sword in the Stone—in the best way possible. Throw in Alan Tudyk’s wise-cracking pet goat, Valentino, and it seems like Wish has all the ingredients to cook up a Disney classic.
But, at about the 20-minute mark and after several shrill, forgettable musical numbers have come and gone, it becomes clear that Buck and Veerasunthorn don’t want to make a Disney classic—they want to make a movie referencing Disney classics.
Journey Into Reference
Everything in Wish feels forced and designed to reference past Disney movies. It has songs, whether the musical numbers add to the story or, in most cases here, do not. It has no shortage of visual allusions: a pair of magical, smoke hands look exactly like those Ursula used to steal Ariel’s voice in The Little Mermaid. A dungeon workbench has all the same trappings as that owned by the Evil Queen in Snow White. Asha’s wishing star might be the same one Geppetto wished on in Pinocchio. A magical pair of scissors looks borrowed from Cinderella. Asha’s gang of friends number seven in count, and one describes himself as “grumpy.” Notice a pattern?
Besides evoking every Disney animated film ever, Wish also brings to mind another, more recent animated movie: South Park: Joining the Panderverse. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone obviously intended that movie as a skewering of Disney’s recent gravitation toward spinoffs, reboots, sequels and other existing titles designed to include and avoid offending anyone.
Indeed, the same toxic internet whiners Joining the Panderverse also indicts will find much to hate in Wish. Asha’s group of friends seems designed to include every possible gender, race, body type, and ability (they include a disabled woman and a dwarf character). Representation should play an important role in crafting a film for the mass market. But the way Wish presents it, representation feels more like checking off boxes on a list. The supporting characters get little to no development throughout Wish’s 95-minute runtime and have little in the way of plot function. In that way, the movie doesn’t feel like it strikes a blow for representation so much as insulting the audience’s ability to empathize with characters that don’t share the same skin tone, gender, background, etc. When inclusion feels perfunctory, it feels like condescension to the audience. Characters should feel essential to a story beyond identity politics or public relations optics. Movies like Wish set the cause of diversity and inclusion stumbling backward.
Enter the Panderverse
At a certain point, Wish feels so preoccupied with referencing other Disney movies and appealing to the broadest audience possible that it forgets to tell a story of its own. That’s a real shame, as Wish does have glimmers of real magic. Though he has no dialogue, Star has an endearing personality—one strong enough to make him enduring in the Disney cannon. A magical chase sequence involving Asha, some talking animals, and dark sorcery finds the right balance of humor and thrills. As mentioned, DeBose’s rendition of “This Wish,” the only worthwhile number composers Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice muster, can stand alongside “Belle,” “Part of Your World,” “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” or any other character song in the Disney repertoire. Scenes of the people of Rosas rebelling against Magnifico are genuinely rousing, though given the character’s blurry motivations, audiences might find his fate a bit unfair.
In the final moments of Wish, a Mickey Mouse head appears, formed by exploding fireworks. As credits roll, audiences see characters from every Disney animated movie (The Black Cauldron notwithstanding) formed of stars. This drives home the movie’s central flaw—it has no identity or reason to exist. Rather, it wants to pander to fans of Disney animation (astute viewers will also note that Disney parks also once included a fireworks show called “Wishes;” the flagship of the Disney Cruiseline is also called Wish) and bilk Disney lovers of their cash. More than anything else, that desire blocks Wish from becoming the kind of classic it (ahem) wishes to emulate.
Once upon a time, Disney released clip shows featuring great moments from its animated movies. Now it spends $200 million to disguise the same thing. Next time the company wants to pay tribute to itself, it might consider the cost-cutting measure of just airing a clip show. That seems morally preferable to the cost-cutting measures CEO Bob Iger argued for during the WGA and SAG strikes, tantamount to cheating the hard-working artists behind a feature film out of a fair wage.
The audience would probably prefer the clip show, too.
Rating: 5/10 Specs
Wish opens in cinemas November 22. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.
David Reddish is the award-winning novelist behind The Passion of Sergius & Bacchus and the Sex, Drugs & Superheroes series. He's also a noted entertainment journalist, having written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, MovieWeb, ScreenRant, Queerty, and Playboy.