Disney has created an entire legacy on the concept of wishing on a star, but what happens if that star was an adorable, autonomous being? That’s just the start of Disney’s centennial feature, “Wish,” an animated musical that simultaneously pays homage to the Walt Disney Company while forging a new path of storytelling meant to sustain another hundred years.
But the idea of making a film to represent 100 years of storytelling is a tall feat, and it’s the biggest barrier to “Wish.” For all the film’s adoration of the Disney Company, and it’s back to basic approach of celebrating a great villain (and, boy, is this movie’s villain amazing), Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore’s screenplay often feels underwritten, with characters who are delightful but lacking that wee bit of verisimilitude to make them jump off the page. Make no mistake, “Wish” is a darling film with fantastic music and amazing voice performances, but the story does feel a bit like a house of cards waiting to be poked.
The story takes place in the kingdom of Rosas where, as the film’s opening song lays out, everyone in the town gives their deepest wish to King Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine) on their 18th birthday. The King keeps the wishes safe and every few months does a ceremony where someone’s wish is granted. Rosas tour guide Asha (Ariana DeBose) hopes her beloved grandfather can have his wish granted to celebrate his 100th birthday and, upon obtaining an interview to be Magnifico’s apprentice, believes she can make his wish a reality. But when Asha learns about Magnifico’s true intentions with the wishes, it forces her to make a mighty wish of her own to save her kingdom.
The two biggest things that make “Wish” so enchanting are its animation and its music, with the latter giving us some of the best Disney songs since “Frozen.” Asha’s title song “Wish” is a rousing ballad that is this year’s “Let It Go” while even her opening song, “Welcome to Rosas,” has a Latin vibe reminiscent of “Encanto.” But it’s really King Magnifico’s villain song, “This is the Thanks I Get,” that is the true bop. Julia Michaels’ lyrics create a frustrated mood on par with some of the great villain songs of the ’90s, especially “Be Prepared” from “The Lion King.” Pine’s voice, like De Bose’s, conveys such passion that will leave you singing the song for hours.
And, more than anything else, it is Pine and DeBose’s voice work that bonds audiences to the movie. As characters, there’s little depth to them: King Magnifico hints at a deeper backstory that’s never revealed, while Asha is mourning the loss of her father. Both of these imply greater depth but because that’s not given the audience must bond with the voice. Thankfully, DeBose is up there with the greats (Jodi Benson in “The Little Mermaid” for example), giving Asha warmth and feeling. We may not know much beside her having a wish but did we really know anything beyond that for Snow White?
DeBose also excels thanks to the beautiful animation, which is a fascinating blend of 2D and CGI. Many of the actress’ facial expressions were implemented in Asha and it’s amazing watching the animated character bite her lip or brush her hair in a way that feels like you’re watching a three-dimensional character. It makes up for a lot of the slightness to Asha’s character. Outside of her courage and losing her dad there’s no real depth to her. Her friends are all various quirky archetypes but there feels like a grander emphasis on the story of Rosas than Asha within that.
And Asha is straight up surrounded by others, with two friends accompanying her every step of the way: her goat Valentino (who gets the power of speech and is voiced by Disney’s lucky charm Alan Tudyk) as well as wishing star that falls to Earth, known only as Star. The two characters are flat-out adorable, with Star especially being poignant for the character’s expressive face and ability to make anything out of a ball of yarn. Tudyk is always welcome to the ears but Valentino is a fairly one-note character, with his ability to talk doing little more than pleasing small children.
What “Wish” accomplishes it does so well, but it’s hard not to see this needing to represent 100 years of Disney movies, so the various Easter eggs are plentiful — particularly a scene of Magnifico dealing with the wishes of various Disney characters — but the story feels like it’s been clipped to fit those eggs in there. Magnifico and his wife have an interesting relationship, but it’s so simplistic that it’s jarring to have his partner unwaveringly support him one minute and outright forsake his name the name. One of Asha’s friends develops a change in personality after giving up his wish, implying this affects certain people who give Magnifico their wishes, yet it’s never followed up on.
But for much of it you can say this is hearkening back to the Disney tales of old, where storytelling was slight and all one needed to love was the songs and the animation. But for a company that’s come so far, it’s frustrating that the story within “Wish” feels so thin. That being said, go and soak it in. The songs and character will stick with you far longer.
“Wish” opens exclusively in theaters on Nov. 22.
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