WISH is a special title for the Disney company as it was designed from its inception to be an homage to the Disney 100th Anniversary celebration. It’s a lofty set of expectations, does the film deliver? We’re pretty comfortable saying that it does. WISH is a perfect modern fairytale.
When Disney first announced that WISH would be created and dedicated as an homage to a century of classic animated Disney stories, the pangs of terror set in as to what that could mean, it is clip show, a cloyingly sappy retrospective? Surprisingly, it’s a fresh new story and a musical one at that.
First and foremost, this is a Disney animated musical and it adds some great contenders to a library full of classics. Songwriters Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice have penned a great range of songs here from the sweeping ballad “This Wish” sung by the film’s lead actress Ariana DeBose and the wickedly fun villain song “This Is The Thanks I Get” sung by Chris Pine to fun and catchy ensemble pieces like “I’m a Star” and “Knowing What I Know Now.“ The whole soundtrack has a decidedly modern Disney feel to it with — love it or hate it — some familiar echoes to the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who was not officially involved with the project.)
The look of the film is also certainly a talking point. Amongst Disney fans, there’s always a firm debate about the merits of CG vs. hand-drawn animation for Disney’s feature length pictures. There’s no question that a “return to form” would have been lauded as a triumphant win for a film commemorating 100 years of the company’s history but ultimately the computer generated path is just a more realistic expectation, especially considering the post-pandemic realities leading up to the deadline for this film’s release during the 100th anniversary. So how does it look? Disney opted for a sort of hybrid approach with an attempt to craft a world that felt tangibly created by hand but is also distinctly computer generated.
A famous quote by Walt Disney details that “around here, [we keep] opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths” and while the concept of merging a hand-drawn style with that of CG could be a unique one, Disney seemingly erred cautiously towards a more CG-forward approach. Surely, the backgrounds and textures in the film evoke a painterly watercolor feel but ultimately the efforts fall to the background as the story progresses and more vivid CGI pops forward. Perhaps the most effective translation besides the backgrounds is the character of Star whose facial expressions were based off careful research of the face of the one who started it all… Mickey Mouse!
While Walt has also famously said “it’s kind of fun to do the impossible” it’s not exactly clear that the look of this film does much to push the boundaries for this visual medium, not as much as we would have hoped for, at least. In hindsight, it seems previous endeavors by the company were unquestionable trial runs for merging the two mediums together with short films such as Disney’s “Feast” or the Disney SparkShorts “Out.” Both of these shorts leaned harder into a more hand-created approach but it seems an effective CG solution evoking that classic Disney hand-drawn style still seems slightly beyond reach for now. To invoke Walt one more time, Disney will surely “keep moving forward.”
WISH is a satisfying movie from the opening of the storybook (yes, of course the film starts with one although we wish it would have been a real one instead of CG) to the final end-credit scene. (Please do yourself the favor and do not leave the theater until the lights turn on!).
Asha (Debose) finds herself on a journey of self discovery and encounters a literal Star from the sky along the way. While this star does not grant wishes, it does give voices — literally and figuratively. In the promotional trailers and videos, you may have seen the comedic scene when Star sprinkles some stardust on Asha’s goat companion Valentino (voiced by the immeasurably talented Alan Tudyk) giving her four-legged friend the ability to talk. This foreshadows the figurative voice Star ultimately helps Asha discover not just for herself but also for the people of her kingdom in the city of Rosas. Star may not grant wishes but it certainly helps people find their voice — an ironic point compounded by the fact that Star does not speak.
And of course, there’s the bad guy. In the opening number for the film, “Welcome to Rosas,” Asha introduces the audience to King Magnifico (Pine) as someone “just like us, with a twist” which is a fully tongue-in-cheek meta reference to the fact that since Hans in FROZEN (or arguably King Candy in WRECK-IT-RALPH a year earlier) that Disney frequently has gone back to draw from the well of “surprise villains” in their films. But Magnifico holds no pretense here. While he does not start inherently evil, he finds himself corrupted by dark magic and, with Asha as his foil, embarks on his wicked path.
The resolution comes with a beautiful moral of the story that we could literally dedicate a whole posting about. But basically it’s a lovely message of community and believing in yourself. The film’s ensemble cast includes a great mix of supporting characters including Angelique Cabral as Queen Amaya, Victor Garber as Asha’s grandfather, Sabino, and Natasha Rothwell as Asha’s mother, Sakina. Plus, a whole crew of besties including Jennifer Kumiyama as Asha’s best friend, Dahlia, Evan Peters as Simon, Harvey Guillén as Gabo, Ramy Youseff as Safi, Niko Vargas as Hal, Della Saba as Bazeema, and Jon Rudnitsky as Dario.
The Hidden References
Directors Chris Buck (“Frozen,” “Frozen 2”) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (“Raya and the Last Dragon”) have poured a lot of heart into this feature and as a tribute to 100 years of Disney, there’s no way that Disney would not sneak in tributes to that century-worth of storytelling. During a press conference, producer Peter Del Vecho and executive producer (and Disney Chief Creative Officer) Jennifer Lee mused with co-producer Juan Pablo Reyes about all the various hidden surprises and Easter Eggs that eagle-eyed fans can expect to find. Pablo Reyes shared that there’s at least 70 intentional references but likely upwards of 100 or more that were added in during various stages of production by the various teams that had their hands on the film.
Buck shared that he’d been informed that in a segment with talking trees that a nod to Grandmother Willow can be found (a nod back to his early days with the Mouse when he worked on POCAHONTAS.) What’s wonderful about these tributes is that they are almost all subtly incorporated and never fully ham-fisted. While some are more overt than others, it’s a great blend of tongue-in-cheek, blink-and-miss, and look-carefully homages that will make repeat viewings of this one a must.
Some of the more obvious references we found included a flying-obsessed redhead named Peter, a seamstress who makes some pretty familiar dresses, a poison apple on Magnifico’s desk, and many, many, more. Filmmakers mused at a press conference that if you see something that reminds you of a previous Disney film, it was intentional — even if it wasn’t done intentionally.
One thing you won’t have to look hard for is a good time. This is a wholesome 92 minutes of fun. WISH is a fantastic movie and it should have promising legs in theaters this holiday season.
See it for Yourself
WISH makes dreams come true in theaters in November 22, 2023.