“Be careful what you wish for” is the moral of Disney’s latest animation, an odd sort of greatest-hits package that ticks all the boxes for what passes as inspirational fare these days. Sadly, that message mostly applies to the studio bosses, who appear to have closed their eyes and blown out 100 candles in return for a 95-minute movie based on the company theme song: Pinocchio’s “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
Cliff Edwards’ haunting, seven-note refrain is referenced throughout the entire movie, but in a weirdly mutated version that, whenever it chimes in, sounds like whoever’s playing it has forgotten how it actually goes, or might be playing it with a rubber spoon. Similarly, on closer examination (which is not at all advised), the plot comes to resemble a similarly wonky AI meditation on the song’s lyrics, which served Pinocchio’s themes very well with its talk of hearts’ desires, fate stepping in like a bolt from the blue, and dreams coming true. In Wish, however, that’s mostly lip-service, leaving big, gaping holes where subtlety and the subtext ought to be.
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Disney used to make this kind of film all the time, but now the studio seems a bit bamboozled as to how to do it in the modern age, which might explain why it lifts quite a lot from DreamWorks’ Shrek — starting with a tongue-in-cheek fairytale-book opening — and takes its musical direction from The Greatest Showman, which means lots of tub-thumping numbers that sound like variations on a theme from a YA adaptation of Les Misérables. Like that film’s bombastic “This is Me,” every song here feels like an overreaction, and the verbosity of the lyrics (“hesitations” rhymes with “reservations”) jars with the simplicity of the animation and its Snow White palette.
The star of the show, and the film’s not-so-secret weapon, is the effortlessly charming Ariana DeBose as Asha. Asha is a tour guide introducing visitors to the kingdom of Rosas, which is ruled by Magnifico (a game Chris Pine), a sorcerer who has mastered the art of benevolent magic. As the story starts, Asha, who’s about to turn 18, is getting ready for a job interview as the sorcerer’s apprentice (a reference to Fantasia that doesn’t really go where you think it will, or anywhere at all, for that matter). Magnifico’s gimmick is that he has the power to grant wishes, which he does during grandiose ceremonies in the town square. Asha wants her 100-year-old grandfather’s wish to come true, and, during her interview for the job, she tries to jump the queue.
What happens instead is that Magnifico lets slip that he has no intention of making anyone’s dreams come true, if he can possibly help it. Instead, he holds them in limbo, and the film’s most bizarre leap of logic is that once the citizens of Rosas have entrusted their dreams to him, they instantly forget them. (Might they not have the same dream later? Or dream up a new and better one?) Let’s just roll with that for a moment, because Asha does, and while trying to deal with her disillusionment she literally wishes on a star, which promptly comes down from the sky to do her bidding.
Naturally, this enrages the king, who turns to a book of black magic that is so toxic and forbidden he keeps it within easy reach, in a cabinet on the wall of his study. But as Magnifico gets further and further out of control, the levels of peril seem remarkably tame: The citizens of Rosas look to be doing fine without their dreams, some of which seem perfectly achievable, some of which are quite maddeningly vague. Indeed, there’s a sour whiff of entitlement when Asha starts to moon about finding “something more than this,” in a quaint, pastoral kingdom that seems to have full employment and a happy, diverse population (would-be Napoleons of the culture wars will be disappointed to hear that about the wokest thing here is Asha’s best friend Dahlia, a young woman who wears glasses and walks with the aid of a stick).
Needless to say, it all comes out in the wash, but it’s hard to know who Wish is for, since its homilies about being true to yourself — in an unthreatening, non-competitive way — have been endemic in teen entertainment since High School Musical, and the songs lack the catchy primacy of anything in Frozen. There’s fun to be had with its talking animals and sentient mushrooms, but there are unsatisfying hints of darker possibilities that point to unpursued subplots, like Asha’s relationship with her mother and her late father, who died when she was 12, or the king’s tragic backstory, in which his family was destroyed “by greedy thieves.”
Thankfully, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but to cap 100 years with a few throwaway quips about Bambi, Mary Poppins and Peter Pan (plus a whole roll call of more recent characters during the end credits) seems to be a hell of a disappointing way to capitalize on such a formidable back catalog.
Release date: November 22, 2023
Directors: Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn
Screenwriters: Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore
Cast: Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk
Running time: 1 hr 32 min