Hollywood needs to understand that acknowledging and embracing a legacy are not the same, but it has the uncanny ability to trip upon itself in trying to tap on it. Hollywood continually churns out cookie-cutter type of action movies starring aged star Liam Neeson, hoping to score another Taken (2008), but lightning rarely strikes the same place multiple times.
Last Action Hero (1993) tried to ride on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic status with a parody of his action star status, while Jackie Chan and Nicolas Cage revisited their extended acting careers with the recent Ride On (2023) and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) as somewhat meta critiques of their careers, but these attempts were seen more as vanity projects than credible works.
Now we have Disney trying to do the same, and it’s not their first time. Enchanted (2007) served as both a homage and parody of the storied Princess genre it practically defined in the last 80 years, and it’s looking to do the same with Wish, the House of Mouse’s latest animated venture that takes a deep dive into the very essence of its legacy, intertwining a century of storytelling magic with a new, albeit familiar, narrative.
Adorned with nods and winks to its illustrious past, Wish, directed by Chris Buck of Frozen fame, and Fawn Veerasunthorn, well-known for her work on Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, wears its heritage like a cloak but this self-referential journey, though charming in its homage to the company’s roots, risks being overshadowed by its ambition. It endeavours to be more than just another entry in the Disney canon, marked by the company’s centennial celebrations, and attempts to embody the very concept of wishing upon a star, a core theme that has been a hallmark of Disney storytelling since its inception.
Yet, in its quest to celebrate a legacy, Wish actually treads a fine line between homage and imitation. The film’s narrative, centred around a brave and kind young woman in a fantastical kingdom, ticks all the checkboxes of a classic Disney tale, from talking animals and whimsical musical numbers, to a malevolent antagonist wielding ominous magic.
Set in the magical kingdom of Rosas, ruled by the charming sorcerer King Magnifico (Chris Pine). Rosas’ residents surrender their deepest wishes to Magnifico upon turning 18, only to forget them entirely. These wishes, locked away in Magnifico’s castle, become a symbol of lost dreams and unfulfilled potential.
Asha (Ariana DeBose), a spirited and inquisitive young woman, embarks on a quest to reclaim these lost wishes. Her journey begins with a powerful wish of her own, answered by a celestial being named Star, and accompanied by her talking goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk) and together, they ignite a rebellion amongst the people against Magnifico’s authoritarian rule. The film blends familiar Disney elements – a strong-willed heroine, humorous sidekicks, talking animals, and a cunning villain – with a narrative that subtly critiques the very nature of corporate-dominated fantasies.
Serving as a grand finale to Disney’s 100th-anniversary celebrations, Wish showcases a lavish display of tributes to the studio’s rich animated legacy. The film, sprinkled with references to beloved classics such as Peter Pan (1953), Bambi (1943), and Mary Poppins (1964), cleverly targets a younger audience. Scenes like Valentino’s whimsical chicken dance are more likely to captivate young viewers as well. The familiar strains of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ are interwoven throughout the movie, a constant reminder of Disney’s long-standing heritage and its influence on the film.
Yet, despite its above-average status in the realm of animated children’s movies and the evident love and meticulous attention to detail that have been Disney’s trademarks for a century, Wish seems to linger too long in the shadow of the past.
The presence of characters resembling the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White feels more derivative than a clever nod, echoing the film’s over-reliance on Disney references. These familiar elements, while appealing to families with children seeking holiday entertainment, sometimes feel more like a commemorative parade than a groundbreaking story, leaving viewers to wonder if it’s launching a new chapter in Disney animation or revelling too deeply in its previous successes. In its earnest effort to pay tribute to a century of Disney magic, the film occasionally misses the opportunity to infuse its own unique magic and creativity.
Oscar-winner DeBose’s commendable portrayal of Asha is filled with heroic sincerity, and her performance of Julia Michaels’ stunning Disney score, ‘This Wish’, is a highlight. The film’s lead song not only serves as an anthem of hope and resistance but also introduces the film’s standout character, a wishing star with chaotic energy. This star aids Asha in challenging Magnifico, showcasing that Wish is more than just her story; it’s about a community reclaiming power together. Collective strength is a powerful statement the film wishes to make, triumphing over individual heroism.
However, that being said, the villain song ‘This Is the Thanks I Get?!’ exemplifies a certain uniformity in the soundtrack, with its strummy guitar lines that align with the film’s Mediterranean setting but feel disconnected from the story. The track is too upbeat and pop-oriented, its cheery chorus clashing with the song’s darker themes. Despite Chris Pine’s expressive vocal work, which aptly conveys the song’s resentment and mounting fury, it fails to rise to the level of a memorable villain anthem, lacking a dynamic transition from its lighter beginnings to a more ominous tone.
Wish marks a bold departure for Disney, venturing beyond its conventional animation approach. Under the guidance of the Frozen creative team, the film employs softly rendered, storybook-like visuals that blend classic fairy tale charm with cutting-edge CG techniques. While this innovative blend of modern 3D and traditional watercolour artistry occasionally results in a slight mismatch between characters and their environments, it’s a commendable effort in artistic experimentation. The film stands out for its attempt to fuse these two styles, showcasing the skill of its artists and pushing the boundaries of traditional animation.
Technically speaking, Disney’s Wish ambitiously wraps its century-long legacy into a visually stunning 95-minute package, blending nostalgic nods with a tale of rebellion and community. While the film excels in artistic experimentation and showcases a rich tapestry of references to Disney’s storied past, it sometimes gets lost in its own homage, missing chances to forge new, magical paths. Asha’s journey, although vibrant and heartwarming, is overshadowed by the film’s over-reliance on familiar Disney elements.
Wish stands as a testament to Disney’s incredible legacy but also serves as a reminder that innovation is key to keeping such a legacy alive and relevant for future generations.