Disney’s newest animated musical, Wish, is technically about a girl helped by a magical creature after learning her beloved sorcerer king is not so wonderful. But Wish is really about Disney writing itself a love letter. The film is overtly based on “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” It’s also overstuffed with elements, like singing woodland creatures and a fairy tale framing, meant to pay homage to Golden Age Disney classics. And it’s structured like the studio’s Renaissance era movies while looking like an early 2000s release. It’s Disney-Inception. And none of it works.
All that self-adulation and referential storytelling detracts from a great idea, as does a woefully incomplete, subpar script. The result is a film with a major identity crisis made worse by subpar animation. If not for its clever premise and insightful themes, two leading stars, and some great songs it would be a total nightmare. Instead it’s merely a disappointing dream.
As someone who craves the return of shorter movies, it pains me to say the 92-minute long Wish desperately needs at least 15 more minutes. That way it could incorporate elements most good movies tend to have have, like meaningful characterization and plot development. Instead the film has too many shallow characters defined by a single trait, inexplicable plot points, and payoffs that come out of nowhere.
The script—which is actively unfunny the harder it tries to be humorous—is so incomplete that the more you think about it the worse it gets. The fantastic performances of stars Ariana DeBose (the young hero Asha) and Chris Pine (the villain King Magnifico) cover up many of Wish‘s flaws. As do some incredible songs. Wish has memorable numbers that are are more musically mature and intense than a lot of Disney fare. (Which is a pleasant surprise after a very standard opening number.) But not even DeBose and Pine can cover up some huge, obvious mistakes in the screenplay. The movie’s biggest emotional moments and some very important scenes, like the big ending, aren’t earned. More focus on incorporating basic storytelling elements would have been a huge improvement.
Unfortunately Wish isn’t interesting to look at, either. The animation style is not “retro” so much as it’s regressive. It seems to want to recreate the look of Disney film’s like Tangled and Bolt, but it looks like a cheap knockoff of those movies. What’s especially frustrating is that it occasionally employs other animation styles that look amazing. Wish has backgrounds that are truly gorgeous. A simple, stunning post-credits scene also shows what could have been. I wish we got to see the version of the movie with that animation instead.
The film isn’t a total disaster, though, even beyond its leads and songs. It’s premise is so good it covers up some of the movie’s many failings. Wish takes place in the magical kingdom of Rosas. People from all over the world come to live on the beautiful, peaceful island under King Magnifico’s protection. All he asks of them is when they move there or turn 18 they literally give him their heart’s most important wish via magic. The sorcerer then keeps their wish, which they don’t remember, as floating blue orbs. He not only keeps them safe, he grants one person their wish every month. All of which sounds great until Asha realizes why that’s horrible. That leads her to wish upon a star, which in turn brings the magical being called Star to Rosas.
Star’s arrival results in Magnifico going full villain. Only, his transformation doesn’t carry any heft. But nothing that happens in Wish does, since it’s main focus isn’t the story, but rather celebrating Disney. It’s somehow overly meta despite being total earnest. There’s no “winking” at the camera, at least not until the credits roll, and yet it’s so overtly about Disney it still feels meta. It’s too bad, because the rare times Wish does its own thing it’s a lot of fun. There are also a few moments where it seems like it might get weird and interesting, but then a talking bunny shows up and it feels trite. There’s a fine line between tribute and banal. Wish is not close to the line. It revels in being derivative.
The perils of the film’s Disney-ness is best exemplified in its title. If the movie only cared about telling the best story possible, Wish wouldn’t be Wish. It would be Dream, because that’s what it’s really about. This movie is about how the dreams we hold dearest in our heart shape us, both good and bad. It’s about how dreams can push us to greatness just as much as they can fill us with disappointment and regret. And it’s about the fact that who we entrust with helping make our dreams come true is just as important as what our dreams are.
That’s exactly the type of idea that should make for a great Disney animated movie. But the word “wish” does not have the same connotation as the word “dream.” One has a power the other does not. “A wish is a dream your heart makes” doesn’t sound as good as the original because it’s not. We send our wishes far away to the stars, but we keep our dreams in our hearts.
Too bad for us that long ago Jiminy Cricket didn’t sing “When You Dream Upon a Star.” It might have led to a much better movie now.