WISH Review: Disney's Love Letter to 100 Years of Disney History

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
WISH Review: Disney's Love Letter to 100 Years of Disney History

To celebrate its well-earned 100th anniversary, the Walt Disney Animation Studios (hereinafter "Disney Studios") turned over its latest animation effort, Wish, to one of their veteran, in-house A-teams, Frozen co-director Chris Buck (Surf’s Up, Tarzan) and co-writer Jennifer Lee (Zootopia, Wreck-It Ralph).

Together with first-timer Fawn Veerasunthorn sharing co-directing duties with Buck, screenwriter Allison Moore doing the same with Lee on scripting duties (plus an assortment of credited and uncredited writers), and the best animation Disney’s money can buy, Wish delivers handsome, eye-catching visuals, hummable songs two or three steps above mediocre (all ably performed by the voice cast), and the now obligatory self-empowerment narrative to mostly positive, if occasionally middling, muddled, results.

Liberally interweaving classic references (Easter Eggs by another, more familiar name), including Disney’s signature tune, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Wish centers on Asha (voiced by Oscar winner Ariana DeBose), a 17-going-on-18 teen living a seemingly utopian existence on a pre-industrial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic island, Rosas, founded by the community’s self-appointed leader, Magnifico (Chris Pine). A sorcerer-king who leans heavily into the “benevolent” part of “benevolent dictatorship,” Magnifico rules Rosas along an equally benevolent queen, Amaya (Angelique Cabral), doling out monthly favors to his happily eager subjects at a Las Vegas-style ceremony.

Magnifico’s power, influence, and legitimacy are tied directly to the island’s peculiar rules. After literally collecting his new subjects’s most heartfelt wish or desire when they arrive on the island for the first time, he stores them in glowing, floating blue balls in his palace, promising one lucky, lottery-style “winner” the fulfillment of their wish each month. Even as his subjects no longer remember the nature or content of their individual wishes, the mere promise of a wish fulfilled keeps Rosas running smoothly. Vain, narcissistic, and far too impressed with himself, the goateed Magnifico receives the unqualified adoration he requires to satisfy his outsized ego.

While it’s abundantly clear Magnifico isn’t Wish’s hero or even protagonist, it’s not immediately apparent that he’s actually the antagonist to Asha and her fondest wish, to give her soon-to-be 100-year-old grandfather, Sabino (Victor Garber), his fondest wish to create something lasting and influential. As part of an interview to become Magnifico’s apprentice, Asha gets the opportunity to ask him to fulfill Sabino’s wish before the latter shuffles off this mortal coil and joins the ancestors.

What Asha discovers about Magnifico and the lies he perpetuates to retain control of Rosas and its people not only disappoints, it undermines her faith in Magnifico’s benevolent dictatorship. Just as literally “wishing upon a star” after her underwhelming encounter with Magnifico, Asha doesn’t quite get her fondest wish (i.e., fulfilling her grandfather’s), but instead gets an anime-inspired magical friend clumsily dubbed “Star.” (A lack of imagination when it comes to character names isn’t what we typically expect from Disney, but here we are.)

With its magical, somewhat inconsistent powers (it can give animals the power of speech, but otherwise can’t grant wishes), almost immediately, Star joins Asha and her motley crew of supporters, friends, and hangers-on to free Rosas from Magnifico’s tyranny. All, of course, with songs of varying, variable quality, to accompany Asha on her journey.

Rather than reinventing or even attempting to subvert overly familiar animation tropes, the team behind Wish plays it supremely safe. Every story beat, every emotional highlight, every roof-elevating song has ample precedent in 100 years of Disney’s animated offerings.

That, in turn, often makes Wish feel like a greatest-hits compendium, fan service for Disney’s dedicated, borderline fanatical fanbase. Sometimes that means audiences won’t be able to shake a recurring sense of deja vu. Other times, they’ll feel themselves drifting off, waiting for something, anything resembling novelty to stir them back to attention.

Still, for all of its non-negligible faults related to the “just play the hits” approach to storytelling and brand extension, it’s just as difficult to argue against the visual results onscreen. Stepping back — way, way back — from its usual detail-heavy animation approach, Wish goes in the opposite direction, emulating a more traditional, 2D one.

Add to that a flatter, pastel-oriented color palette, and a mix-and-match production design that nonetheless manages to feel organic (if, albeit, incredibly theme-park clean and grime-free), and Wish, while too often feeling like a self-congratulatory exercise in brand extension, delivers a stellar visual and aural experience.

Wish opens Wednesday, November 22, only in movie theaters, via Disney Studios.

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Allison MooreAriana DeBoseChris BuckChris PineDisneyFawn VeerasunthornJennifer LeeVictor GarberWish

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