Wish (PG) ★★

Review Date: November 21st, 2023

Wish is the brainchild of the Frozen production team, with director Chris Buck and writer Jennifer Lee re-teaming on the new project. Yet the magic they created with the 2013 Disney project (and, to a lesser extent, its sequel) is almost entirely absent in Wish. Despite including a number of familiar Disney tropes, the movie's elements never gel. It's strangely "off" in many ways and the result, although possibly still accomplished enough to capture the attention of children, is easily Disney's least appealing animated musical in the post-Little Mermaid era.

Trying to dissect what's wrong with Wish requires a combination of looking at obvious mistakes and nit-picking. The voice cast is solid, with Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose playing Asha and Chris Pine as the villainous Magnifico. The film has familiar themes of hope, faith, and following one's dream. There's a cute animal sidekick (Valentino, voiced by Alan Tudkyk) and an even cuter non-speaking magical talisman. Noticeably missing is any kind of romantic element (nor is Asha a princess), although that in and of itself isn't problematic since several recent entries into the Disney and Pixar catalogues have moved away from having a love story subplot. (Encanto being the most notable.)

The setting is the magical Kingdom of Rosas, which is ruled over by the supposedly benevolent sorcerer, King Magnifico, and his wife, Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral). Magnifico's wizardly capabilities allow him to grant wishes and, as each of his subjects turns 18, they give their wish to the king, who stores them in a special room of his palace for safe keeping. Once each month, he holds a ceremony in which he chooses one of the wishes for fulfillment. 17-year old Asha wants to be Magnifico's apprentice and, after doing well in the interview, she is given the rare privilege of seeing the room where the wishes are stored. When Asha asks that Magnifico grant the wish of her grandfather, Sabino (Victor Garber), he becomes cold and refuses. An argument ensues in which Asha learns that Magnifico hoards the wishes as a means to keep the population passive. Horrified, Asha leaves the palace and goes into the forest, where she makes her own wish, which causes a star to drop from the heavens. It imbues Asha with powers that she decides to use to free all the wishes being held captive by Magnifico so the citizens of Rosas can be made whole.

Although in many ways Asha fits into the traditional mold of a Disney heroine (lack of royalty notwithstanding), she never feels fully formed. Compared to other Disney main characters, she's paper-thin. Also, aside from Valentino, she doesn't have a reliable friend/love interest to interact with. The story feels familiar and, despite various Easter Eggs, this is a rare instance when Disney is primarily courting the under-10 crowd without caring much how adults react. The songs are subpar, sounding more like they were designed for radio play than as an integral part of the story (the lyrics in particular are underwhelming). Then there's the animation...maybe this is a stylistic thing but, at least to me, it looks cheap - not at all the kind of crisp imagery I have come to expect from Disney. At times, it almost seems unfinished. All things considered, Wish is a lot more like one of the many Disney wannabe animated films that popped up during the ‘90s and ‘00s than the Mouse House's big 2023 holiday offering.

Disney has positioned Wish as a 100th anniversary celebratory movie and, as such, it relies to a certain extent on nostalgia (with the star representing the ball of light that has granted many wishes in other Disney movies). The end credits feature renderings of many of the studio's best-known characters - from Snow White and Bambi to Ariel (Mark I), Belle, and Aladdin to more recent protagonists. Such attempts to position Wish as a kind of prequel to the entire Disney canon might have worked better if the movie felt like more than a quick throwaway destined for Disney+ in a few months. If ever there was a Disney animated feature reeking of desperation (the studio badly needs a hit, especially after Encanto underperformed at the box office despite critical praise and last year's Strange World bombed), this is it. Perhaps there's enough here to satisfy young children (my four-year-old daughter was delighted) but the older one gets, the less there is to enjoy. This may be the worst major animated film Disney has released in the past 40 years and its lack of creative energy doesn't augur well for the immediate future.

© 2023 James Berardinelli