2023 has been full of studio celebrations for their centennials and none have done it the way that Walt Disney Studios has. More than just redesigning their film intro-logo or releasing special edition home collections of all their films, Walt Disney Studios releases to the world a film whose premise starts with a defining concept of Walt Disney Studios and the surrounding theme parks: wishing. By its nature, the word refers to something that an individual desires but may not be likely to happen. At Walt Disney, all one needs to do is believe enough that placing all of one’s hopes on a collection of celestial dust will result in life-changing magic. In the Chris Buck (Frozen films) and Fawn Veerasunthorn co-directed Wish, wishes are more than something we hold dear, we give them away for safe keeping in hopes that they’ll be selected to be granted. Wrapped in one meta reference to the last 100 years of animated adventures, Wish attempts to challenge the trust we put in others to make our wishes come true and ask us to ponder if our wishes are not better kept up to us to make true.
In the land of Rosas, citizens live harmoniously under the guidance of the magical king Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine) and his queen Amaya (voiced by Angelique Cabral), the two who founded Rosas in hopes of creating a safe haven where all are welcome and none lack for anything. To live in Rosas means to accept a rule that beginning at the age of 18, anyone who so desires can give their wish to Magnifico for safekeeping and consideration of granting. One day, however, optimistic and idealistic Asha (voiced by Ariana DeBose) accidentally brings a star to life through the power of her own wish, setting into motion events that threaten all of Rosas and change all their lives as they know them.
The script from Buck, Veerasunthorn, Jennifer Lee (Frozen films), and first-time feature screenwriter Allison Moore is a bold one. In most Disney productions, magic is either friend or foe to the protagonist, the acquisition of power something that either helps or hinders toppling the enemy. What the script does here is not only make magic something accessible, the entire idea of it being accessible to someone like Asha creates a question of what it means when we, the general populace, put so much trust in those supposedly looking out for us, that we would give up so much of ourselves in hopes of being seen. In a weird way, it’s as if Wish wants the audience to consider their own relationship with Walt Disney Studios and surrounding properties as something to put so much faith in when we, as individuals, are just as capable of making our dreams come true — wishing on a star or not. We may never achieve our dreams the way Cinderella, Milo, Judy, Kuzxo, Elsa, Ralph, and others in the Disney catalogue do, but does that mean we should resign ourselves to just handing over *our* wishes to the Walt Disney Company? One does not expect such subtext, whether the 101st film or not, from such a storied and beloved institution. But, perhaps, that’s the best way to love Walt Disney Studios, by asking it to consider exactly what it’s asking of its audience and the guests who visit “the most magical place on Earth.”
Despite this boldness in the themes, everything else is about as expected. There’s a plucky protagonist, her animal sidekick, an arrogant antagonist, and plenty of magic. Don’t mistake this to mean that the film isn’t fun (I was laughing throughout) or that the cast isn’t wonderful (they really make one care about the world the story takes place in), it’s just that Wish is so beholden to all the stories that came before, that it fails to push itself in a new direction along the likes of Frozen or Strange World. The reason for this is that the film entire is one giant meta reference to the whole Disney catalogue. It’s not just that the film is based on the “when you wish upon a star” concept, but that so much of the character design, production design, and dialogue is derived from or a reference to a different property. Without diving into spoilers, there’s Asha’s grandfather Sabino (voiced by Victor Garber) whose character design could easily be mistaken for an aged-up Miguel from Coco (2017). The green color and manifestation of magic evoke Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959). Among the various characters and stately nature of Rosas are dozens more that refer back to various classic pictures, characters, and stories, each one a new delight if you’re able to catch them all, each one naturally occurring within the story so that one’s awareness of them doesn’t distract from the adventure at hand. This last bit is important for the younger members of the audience who likely won’t have any connection to the 100 years of stories being celebrated, but, for those who do, once seen, they pile up to a point where Wish ceases to be its own story and is merely an opportunity to ask, “did you catch that?.” If so, you know Captain America (Chris Evans) would be proud.
The question at the center of Wish is a wonderful one and, without the distraction of the references, the film as a whole largely succeeds in what it seeks to accomplish. The songs, in context, are emotionally resonant; the art direction beautifully captures the classic hand-drawn style of the original animated films while mixing in the modernity of 3D cell-shading; and the cast, specifically DeBose and Pine, perfectly capture who their characters are: the one driven by hope, the other driven by fear and resentment. To that last part, a quick FYI for parents of littles, the character design and depiction of the climax does harken back a little bit to the Maleficent battle in Sleeping Beauty, in case yours may get frightened by such presentations.
Ultimately, there’s little doubt that audiences will have a good time with Wish in the theater, but time will tell if it’ll catch on for the long run due to its own merits or to its tether to Walt Studios Studios.
In theaters November 22nd, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Walt Disney Studios Wish webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.