To celebrate the Mouse House’s 100th anniversary, Wish takes us back to the beginning: the origin story of how we “Wish Upon a Star” and all that came after. Even though it bears its own story, music, and mythology, Wish asks us to play a game of “Spot the Reference” through overt and subtle nods to Disney’s animation history, but often forgets to be itself. Of course, handling an origin story of a concept is interesting enough, and it’s couched in familiar plotlines with all the requisite heroism and villainy to make it easily digestible.
At the start, we have a good king in the far-off land of Rosas who benevolently and magically grants his subjects’ wishes, given to him freely and kept in little bubbles locked away in a tower. But the cracks start to show when magician apprentice hopeful Asha (Ariana DeBose) learns the truth of King Magnifico’s (Chris Pine) supposedly charitable actions: He erases their memories of the wish upon receiving it, and there are wishes he will never grant that he still keeps under the guise of protection. He wants his kingdom dependent on him, and holding these wish bubbles hostage seems to be the only way he can maintain the status quo.
There’s a certain ill-feeling laid throughout the film as a result; the people of Rosas behold this guy for essentially mind-raping them and taking their heart’s desires. It’s mandated that everyone gives their wish to him when they turn 18, which should have been head-scratching for someone long before Asha started poking around. Frustrated by this injustice and being subject to Magnifico’s public humiliation, Asha wishes upon a star… only to have that star manifest itself as an impish, Bit-like sidekick (y’all have seen Tron from 1982, right?) that helps her and her seven friends – take a guess at what they allude to – take on the throne for the people of Rosas.
The usual good-vs.-evil Disney plot, to be sure, but a rousing voice cast and marvelous animation elevate Wish to a level surpassing its overused structure and nondescript soundtrack. Songs by Julia Michaels, JP Saxe, and Benjamin Rice do well in furthering the plot, but try remembering a lyric or a melody half an hour after you’ve left the theater. If you’re looking for the next “Let It Go” or “Into the Unknown,” this ain’t it. While this writing trio show enough skill in the “exciting” and “bouncy” departments, their energy isn’t enough to hook listeners. They try too much to be either Lin-Manuel Miranda (fast-paced and witty lyric delivery) or Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (elegant and languid) without being distinct, and the songs come across more as random speech interruptions than organic features.
Thankfully, the film’s animation more than makes up for a lot of Wish’s transgressions. You can appreciate the spectacle that computer animation can provide in landscapes and buildings, but equal time is given to show meticulous pencil and brush strokes pushed just as hard to the forefront. As small as it seems, a bookshelf door containing a magic tome stands out in particular, with wood textures and penciled detail practically leaping off the screen and contrasted with the sharpness of computer-animated glass etchings. This lovely blend of styles is present throughout, giving Rosas and its citizens a tangible, tactile feel beyond its animated trappings.
Lending their voices to this colorful world is a rogue’s gallery of talent, headed up by Ariana DeBose and Chris Pine. While Pine stocks his role with his patented mix of straightforward tones and abject mania (he’s excellent when he’s wound up, and the animation helps exaggerate his freneticism), DeBose is our level head, our anchor as magic goes haywire everywhere around her character. These two provide agile and thorough voice performances, supported ably by the likes of Angelique Cabral (Queen Amaya), Victor Garber (Sabino), and Disney Animation Studios regular Alan Tudyk, whose talking goat Valentino practically runs away with the film.
Wish isn’t just a celebration of Disney magic; it’s a celebration of who we are as people. People with our own wishes and dreams. The song “I’m a Star” brushes upon this notion, that we are all made of the same stuff. It also gives its bigger theme away – that no one can make our wishes happen except ourselves. Instead of wishing upon a star, we should have the courage to make the most of our lives, not relying on someone else to fulfill our dreams. But Wish wants it both ways – the self-empowerment and the magic thrust – which, of course, is what Disney films do all the time. There’s no rule that says we can’t buy our cake and eat it, but Wish tends to switch a little too hastily between the two whenever it suits, culminating in being enjoyable enough but all too easily dismissed afterward.