“When You Wish Upon a Star” is one of those songs, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that’s bigger than a song. It was first heard, of course, in the 1940 Walt Disney animated classic “Pinocchio,” where it was sung by Jiminy Cricket. Disney made it the company theme song in the ’50s, and since the early ’80s it has been featured in the studio’s motion-picture logo. Steven Spielberg added a layer of fairy dust to the song’s mythology when he talked about how close he came to playing it over the final moments of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” For Disney, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is more than an anthem — it’s a totem of corporate magic, a statement of everything the company represents and holds dear.
So what does it mean that “Wish,” the studio’s lavish new animated musical, while it doesn’t exactly showcase “When You Wish Upon a Star,” is a kind of literal-minded theme-park-ready illustration of it? The movie is a folk tale about wishes, and how they’re made upon stars, and how when you have one it makes no difference who you are.
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What this means, I think, is that Disney, in the midst of commemorating its 100th anniversary, has become a company so focused on itself that it has now produced a kind of fairy-tale signifier of its own brand. The studio’s cartoons have always borrowed bits and pieces from each other (all those princesses, all those talking animals and singing kitchenware, and what is Simba losing his father in “The Lion King” but the death of Bambi’s mother redux?). But “Wish” self-consciously packs 85 years of animated magic into a portable Disney fable. Does that make it a summation or a pastiche? A movie marbled with pop history or overstuffed with Easter eggs? One that launches the next Disney century or is stuck in the last one? Maybe all of the above.
Since so many of the watchers of Disney cartoons are young children, “Wish” can be experienced, on its own “innocent” terms, as if one had never heard of Disney or seen its movies. On that score it’s a visually pleasing, eminently watchable slice of enchanted product — with a plot that’s both mildly touching and slightly strange.
It’s set in the magic kingdom of Rosas, a tropical island whose residents lead a life of utopian serenity, though for a reason that’s rather suspect: Every one of them has a wish — the thing they’d want most in the world — but they’ve given their wishes to King Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine), the devilishly handsome, outwardly benevolent sorcerer who rules the island, and apparently rules their dreams as well. When you give your wish to Magnifico (he collects them in blue glass bubbles that float atop his palatial tower), you don’t have that wish anymore; you’re free of it, and can no longer even remember what it was. One day, Magnifico may or may not grant it to you (probably not, as we learn). But no matter! Living without your wish, your soul is untroubled. Who wouldn’t want that?
Actually, who would want it? For a while, “Wish” could almost be an allegory of the age of psychotropic meds, or something I seriously doubt the film’s creators intended: a metaphor for life in the era of corporate entertainment (e.g., the kind marketed by Disney), where individual dreams are bought out and replaced by the narcotizing safety of collective fantasy.
The film’s 17-year-old heroine, Asha (Ariana DeBose), is a spunky, sharp-tongued idealist who learned, from her late father, that a wish is something you make upon a star, then carry around with you. It’s the deepest part of who you are. Asha has applied to be the emperor’s new apprentice, and when she arrives for her interview with Magnifico, who’s a coiffed goateed smoothie, she wants to impress him. But she can’t help but question how the whole “Your wish is mine until I decide to give it back to you” thing works. Her bold stance ticks off Magnifico, revealing his true nature. He’s a kind leader until his authority is questioned, at which point his inner authoritarian comes out. We’re talking a ruthless corporate overlord crossed with Maleficent, as well as the first Disney villain who looks like he uses serious hair product.
Out on her own, Asha, inspired by her father, makes a wish so powerful that it lights up the night sky and makes every citizen of Rosas glow with warmth. The wish arrives. It is…a star! A glowing yellow one, who darts around like Tinkerbell crossed with a cuddly emoji, throwing off fairy dust and talking in high-pitched cuddly coos. The star’s name is…Star. And though he/she looks like something that could be hanging on a mobile over a baby’s crib, Star’s magic is real. With one quick gesture, all the local animals start talking — one of them, Asha’s three-week-old pet goat, Valentino (Alan Tudyk), in droll Disney-sidekick absurdities. A twig with a point of light on it becomes Asha’s magic wand. And all of this will give her what she needs to take on Magnifico, who becomes a light show all his own when he digs into his book of black magic, which gives him extraordinary power. The movie turns into Asha and her cute angelic Star vs. Magnifico and his green phosphorescent demonic light, with the fate of the island residents — and their wishes — hanging in the balance.
Co-written by Jennifer Lee (with Allison Moore), who executive produced it, and co-directed by Chris Buck (with Fawn Veerasunthorn), the powerhouse team behind the “Frozen” films, “Wish,” to its credit, doesn’t look like other Disney animated features. The images resemble softly drawn calendar-art paintings, without the usual splashes of kaleidoscopic color — here, a more muted palette of blue, green, gray, pink, and lavender creates a pleasing storybook texture. And Chris Pine’s punchy performance certainly gives you someone to root against. Magnifico starts off as one of those villains with a “human” side, but once he starts casting spells Pine turns him into a volubly self-satisfied narcissist-dictator.
Yet it’s not as if there’s a lot of texture to the fight. “Frozen” and “Encanto,” the Disney animated landmarks of the last decade, both featured heroines tussling with their own natures. In “Wish,” the lines are too cleanly drawn to tap our imaginations. The songs, by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice, are catchy, though in a consumable way that makes it hard not to notice how much they’re imitating the Lin-Manuel Miranda school of verbal aggression wrapped in hooks. Sorry, but there’s no “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” or “Let It Go” here. That may sound like a high bar, but it was Disney, with the quality of those songs (and those films), that raised the bar. The strategy behind “Wish” seems to be: If we do an homage to enchantment, the audience will be enchanted. True magic, however, can’t be recycled.
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