I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for an early screening of Wish, Disney’s latest animated feature, which goes wide next week for Thanksgiving. I’ve been pretty excited for this movie despite the minimal information released. The trailers’ music and villain looked impressive, and the animation is nothing if not distinct. Every frame of Wish is designed to look like a painting without the usual blur in between shots. This is somewhat reminiscent of the “painterly look” they went for with Tangled, crossed with the hand-drawn/CGI blend of Paperman. It’s easy to imagine Disney feeling pushed in this direction after the success of the Spider-Verse movies and DreamWorks’ 2022 releases as well. Regardless, I was most interested in King Magnifico (Chris Pine), the first traditional Disney villain since Mother Gothel in Tangled, 13 years ago! With the trends of plot-twist villains and familial trauma having passed, I am so ready for a real, evil Disney villain. Wish is also being touted as a significant part of Disney’s legacy, “a story 100 years in the making.” Let’s see if the fanfare is warranted.
Wish stars Asha (Ariana DeBose, Hamilton, West Side Story), a young woman with big dreams and a big heart. She wants to become apprentice to Magnifico, the Sorcerer King of Rosas, her island Kingdom home. In Rosas, dreams literally come true, but only if the King deems it so. Citizens give their wishes to Magnifico when they turn 18, and he chooses one wish to grant every month. Asha’s interview mostly goes well, but she and the King disagree on which wishes – if any – should be granted. Asha makes a wish of her own, but upon a night Star, not to the King. This threatens Magnifico’s power and sets the two at odds, quickly transforming Rosas into a dangerous place. It’s up to Asha to protect the Star, save her family, and stop King Magnifico before it’s too late.
I want to start by saying that Wish is definitely a movie made by Disney fans for Disney fans. Take that as you will. There’s even an interview with directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn discussing putting in Disney Easter eggs themselves, the art department doing so, Disney employees not working on Wish giving their suggestions, etc. As a lifelong Disney fan, this got old after a while. There are too many of these references for my taste, and they’re too overt, interacting with characters and the story itself in unnecessarily distracting ways. Asha is given a cloak and a magic wand at one point, dressing her exactly like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. A character named Peter wants to fly, and he dresses exactly like Peter Pan. Several wishes that get openly discussed (and sometimes depicted) are the plots of certain Disney movies. I prefer smaller, less intrusive homages, like Aurora’s dress and Snow White’s poisonous apple, both of which appear in the film. Making characters act or dress exactly like other Disney characters or directly discussing other films’ stories takes me right out of the experience. It reminds me I’m just watching a movie. And it was particularly unwise in this case to remind us of some of the company’s most beloved triumphs. Is it a good idea to bring to mind a great character arc like Mulan‘s or a gorgeously designed film like Sleeping Beauty? In my experience, and this film supports this notion, it just makes me wish I was watching that instead.
Asha doesn’t go on a particularly interesting journey in Wish; in fact, I can’t tell you how she changed or what she learned. She discovers Magnifico is evil, but this doesn’t contradict her belief about the world. It doesn’t challenge her to grow and change. I admire the studio for attempting a new animation style, but I don’t think it worked out. For example, when King Magnifico makes exaggerated facial expressions, it doesn’t look great. The textures aren’t aesthetically pleasing, and Asha’s hair is too weightless and flappy. The textures in Arcane, Spider-Verse, and The Last Wish didn’t bother me, for reference. In the end credits, they show a plethora of classic and new Disney characters, including Rapunzel from Tangled, complete with her 70 feet of hair. This also brought to mind how much more realistically hair moved in that movie. I’m not asking for photorealism; I’m actually tired of that look from Pixar, who mercifully seem to be abandoning it, anyway. But heavy things should convey a sense of mass, of being difficult to move. Regarding these character cameos (if that’s what you call them), I’m frustrated at the exclusion of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Meet the Robinsons. Seriously, you’re going to include Home on the Range and Chicken Little, but not Pooh? It makes no sense. They also chose the wrong character from Big Hero 6 to highlight, but I can admit that’s a nitpick. Finally, the castle turns into a Mickey Mouse head in the end, and a character plays “When You Wish Upon a Star” on a mandolin. The latter is the best such Easter egg in the film, and the character is 100 years old and wishes to create something to inspire the youth. This character is an obvious insert for Disney animation, although Wish is hardly the inspiring creation in question.
Aesthetics and corporate ego-stroking aside, there are problems with Wish’s characters, story, and message. Ariana DeBose is great as Asha, and I like her character design, but she isn’t very interesting or dynamic. She reminds me of Mirabel in Encanto; even though that film has grown on me since my first viewing, she’s still the dullest Madrigal to me. King Magnifico is the film’s biggest disappointment, as I was most excited to see him. Chris Pine isn’t the problem here; the voice acting in Wish is good. But this character is evil for evil’s sake, and not in a fun way. He’s too self-absorbed to be sympathetic, and his backstory and motivation don’t fit him well. You never get the sense that he’s doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and his tragic backstory feels irrelevant to his actions and the film’s events. Showing us what happened may have worked better than spelling it out briefly, or at least showing Magnifico grieving. His song, “This Is The Thanks I Get?,” is similarly underwhelming. This is the first villain song in a Disney movie since Tangled. No, “Love is an Open Door” in Frozen doesn’t count; that was a love song and a duet. This song is alright, but it’s incredibly modern and lacks a certain dramatic flare. It feels like the radio music you hear in a gas station or department store. “This Is The Thanks I Get?” won’t be joining “Poor Unfortunate Souls” or “Hellfire” on anyone’s top villain songs. Most of the movie’s songs are like this: aggressively contemporary and without timeless appeal. The dialogue is also very 2023, especially among the teens. They say things like “I feel seen” and “Same,” and it just doesn’t feel rooted in a fantasy world with magic and true love, etc. The best song is “This Wish,” but it worsens as the film progresses. You know how a movie’s big showstopper tune usually builds and becomes more emotional? I’m thinking “How Far I’ll Go” in Moana or “Remember Me” from Coco. “This Wish” does the opposite. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it gets louder with each iteration, and more voices join Asha’s. But it becomes cheesy and loses the power of her first performance. The whole “kingdom coming together” is stupid in execution. I don’t hate the idea, but they don’t do it well here. The rift between King Magnifico and Queen Amaya is too quick and obvious. Doesn’t she feel some type of way about betraying her husband? Does she see him as the traitor? This is so cheap and lazy. Most movies are too long nowadays, outstaying their welcome with long endings. But Wish could have done with another 10-20 minutes to develop its characters. This movie is very brief, at 95 minutes. The editing is also clunky at times, with scenes cut together in a confusing matter.
Wish’s moral is messy, vague, and somewhat confusing. I think the movie is trying to say you have to achieve your own dreams, or that you have to keep hoping, or something. The idea of a King deciding who gets their wishes granted sounded fantastic; very classic Disney with a dash of social commentary. However, much like the Kingdom’s citizens working together, it’s not done well. I want to talk about a choice the King makes and what it means, but it’s a spoiler, so I’ll save it for later. I agree that you should always have goals, and we must work for our dreams. But like Raya and the Last Dragon‘s theme of trust, a good idea is misused and poorly explored here.
Wish is a downright bummer. Barbie was 2023’s worst disappointment for me until I saw Wish, a testament to Disney’s decaying ability to tell compelling tales and introduce lovable characters. I didn’t like this movie very much. I would only recommend it if you love Disney references and flashy colors.