Producers: Peter Del Vecho and Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster Jones Directors: Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn Screenplay: Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore Cast: Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk, Angelique Cabral, Victor Garber, Natasha Rothwell, Jennifer Kumiyama, Evan Peters, Harvey Guillén, Ramy Youssef, Niko Vargas, Jon Rudnitsky and Della Saba Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
One can understand the Disney company’s decision to celebrate its own centenary of existence, and why it should choose to do so with an animated film built around the song that it’s made its corporate theme—“When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the 1940 “Pinocchio.” Sadly, the movie that screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore and directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, along with their many collaborators, have confected is a distinctly lesser contribution to the Disney animation canon that, like its combination of 2D and 3D styles, tries to blend the old and the new but winds up uneasily straddling the line between them. You’ll leave wishing “Wish” had been better.
The original but highly derivative scenario is set on the magical isle of Rosas, ruled over by a supposedly benevolent sorcerer, Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine), whom the populace both loves and obeys, thankful for their lives of serenity and abundance. We’re given an introductory explanation of Magnifico’s past—about how, after he’d been crushed by the loss of everything he loved, he’d retreated to an island, became self-taught in magic, and gradually created his realm, where he took on the role of protecting its people from the disaster of unfulfilled hopes and dreams by the simple expedient of having all of them hand over their most precious wishes to him for safekeeping on their eighteenth birthdays. They would then be freed about brooding on their desires, and Magnifico would decide to grant one of the wishes occasionally as a gracious boon, provided that in his view doing so wasn’t dangerous to the maintenance of the status quo.
Enter Asha (Ariana DeBose), a seventeen-year old girl who wants to see the wish of her grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber) granted on the occasion of his hundredth birthday. As an applicant to the position of apprentice to Magnifico, she has an opportunity to request that he do so. But her interview with the sorcerer does not go well. She questions his entire system of control, and he responds with an imperiousness that shows that he’s a control freak with a very dark side, using the entire process to keep the populace docile by making them forget their highest aspirations. And, of course, he ostentatiously doesn’t grant Sabino’s wish.
That sets up the plot’s conflict between Magnifico, who becomes more and more openly tyrannical, much to the distress of his wife Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral), and Asha, who wishes upon a star and is rewarded by the appearance of a cute little critter from the heavens, the winsome, chirping Star, who becomes her ally in a project to unfetter the people’s wishes from the sorcerer’s looming tower, where they’re imprisoned in glowing globes. Star also bestows the power of speech on plants and animals, including Asha’s pet goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk), who becomes the third member of the intrepid trio of rebels.
Magnifico responds by opening up his book of dark magic and fighting off Asha, Star and Valentino, as well as taking aim on her widowed mother Sakina (Natasha Rothwell) and Asha’s band of seven friends—disabled Dahlia (Jennifer Kumiyama), grumpy Gabo (Harvey Guillén), joyous Hal (Niko Vargas), muscled but dim Simon (Evan Peters), allergy-prone Safi (Ramy Youssef), goofy Dario (Jon Rudnitsky) and shy Bazeema (Della Saba)—with whom Amaya, distraught over the change in her husband, eventually joins herself. Many reversals and even a betrayal follow before victory is achieved, with Magnifico banished to a dungeon and Asha installed as the new ruler, presiding wisely over the people’s wishes.
In a way, this is a very peculiar story: Magnifico is quite right in saying that some wishes are dangerous, and their fulfillment would be disastrous. But on the other hand, we live in an age when following one’s dream is considered all-important, however eccentric one’s choices might be. Disney, of course, considers itself a staple of the wish-fulfillment business, at least in terms of pop family entertainment, and so the movie’s exaltation of the importance of wishing and dreaming is a natural mantra, so long as you don’t think about it too much.
And “Wish” does fulfill what was clearly another of its makers’ ambitions—melding the older Disney tradition with the company’s newer focuses. The plot is reminiscent of lots of Disney animated classics, and has been carefully constructed to remind viewers of many of them: Asha’s seven pals are designed to mirror the seven dwarfs, for example, and there are brief appearances by iconic characters like Peter Pan (as well as less obvious throwback moments too numerous to catalogue). But the general thrust mirrors that of recent Disney successes like “Frozen,” with a spunky heroine at the center (yet accompanied by an old-fashioned talkative animal sidekick as comic relief). Magnifico is an old-style villain, too, who might call to mind Jafar from “Aladdin,” with a little pop psychology added.
The use of both 2D and 3D animation styles is another way of merging the old and the new, and it’s managed well, with the lushness and intricacy of the compositions increasing gradually from the rather simple opening scenes to the more elaborate later ones. Productions designers Michael Giaimo, Lisa Keene and David Womersley, along with cinematographers Rob Dressel and Adolph Lusinsky, as well as the whole animation team, editor Jeff Draheim (and the directions, of course) should be complimented on the result.
And in addition to Dave Metzger’s background score there are, of course, the inevitable songs, by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice. At first hearing they come off as pleasant and catchy, those in the first half more than those in the second, though it’s unlikely that any of them will achieve the status of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” But they too try to combine the winsome quality of older Disney tunes with the contemporary feel of the studio’s more recent musical offerings. In any event, they benefit from the vocal power and elegance of DeBose, and somewhat surprisingly Pine carries off his solos with impressive vigor as well. Both stars do fine work in their non-singing scenes as well, and the rest of the vocal cast are all solid, with ever-reliable Tudyk getting the expected chuckles as Valentino even if the lines he’s given are hardly memorable—although Peters is given little to work with as Simon.
“Wish” appears to have been intended as something special, but in the end it comes across as just a risk-averse and anodyne addition to Disney’s animation legacy.