The Walt Disney Company turned 100 this year, and the studio’s newest movie, Wish, is meant to commemorate that anniversary with a celebration of all things Disney magic. From Frozen director Chris Buck and Raya and the Last Dragon story head Fawn Veerasunthorn, with a screenplay by Disney Animation chief creative officer Jennifer Lee and Disney newcomer Allison Moore, Wish is all about the twinkling star in the night sky, the one many a Disney hero has wished upon. Perfectly calibrated for that Disney magic!
Except this movie is a little too perfectly calibrated.
Wish feels like what you’d get if you asked a group of C-suite executives armed with ChatGPT to come up with a Disney movie that would please everyone. The prompts: Bring back traditional Disney villains! Give us songs that sound like the big Disney hits! We want a sweet family relationship, and also some kooky friends, and also goofy animal sidekicks! Throw in a few inoffensive butt jokes for kids! And a lot of Easter-egg references to previous Disney movies!
But all that calculation — prioritizing that shopping list of elements that make a Disney hit, rather than starting with the story — strips Wish of any heart it could’ve had. It’s the most blandly inoffensive Disney film to date.
[Ed. note: This review contains setup spoilers for Wish.]
Wish takes place in the kingdom of Rosas, a Mediterranean island ruled by the sorcerer King Magnifico (Chris Pine). Magnifico guards the citizens’ “wishes” (more accurately, their hopes and dreams), which manifest as glowing balls of light that they willingly rip out of their chests and hand over to Magnifico when they turn 18. They immediately forget what their wishes were, and thus lose part of their individuality. But they’ve all been indoctrinated to believe that that’s OK, because if they give their wishes to the king, there’s a tiny chance that he might someday choose to grant a few of them!
Spunky 17-year-old protagonist Asha (Ariana DeBose) is so passionately patriotic and devoted to her king that she interviews to be his apprentice. Her friends, however, accuse her of having a secret agenda: If she gets the job, it’s more likely that she’ll be allowed to realize her own wish, and that her family members — including her 100-year-old grandpa — will get theirs granted as well.
However, she quickly learns that Magnifico only permits people to realize their dreams if he considers their wishes both safe and worthy. And he’s already decided that her grandfather’s vague, good-natured wish to inspire people is too dangerous. Heartbroken, Asha makes a wish on a star, which promptly comes crashing down on her in the form of a spunky, voiceless little golden sprite that wants to help her free the kingdom’s wishes from Magnifico’s clutches. Meanwhile, Magnifico becomes more paranoid and power-hungry, as Asha’s quest threatens his rule and his ego.
The main problem with Wish is that the filmmakers lean so hard on Disney’s legacy and the nostalgic elements that they fail to actually add much new. Every single detail in Wish is a deliberate reminder of another movie that came before it — usually something better and more unique. That’s particularly true for all the characters, some of whom are literally just walking nods to previous Disney movies. They’re all vague ideas of what a Disney Character™ should be, from snarky talking goat Valentino (voiced by Wreck-It Ralph’s Alan Tudyk) to the heroine herself, without much to make them memorable.
The exception, oddly, is the bouncy celestial object Star, which is damn cute, and lends itself to some endearing moments of physical comedy. But while Star is the standout, um, star, it isn’t enough to give the movie its own unique flavor, especially when the central characters have nothing going for them.
Asha is the barest outline of a Disney heroine: She’s plucky, with a big heart, a great singing voice, and a splash of #relatable awkwardness. But while she’s supposedly close with her grandfather and mother, those relationships are barely explored. At one point, her family literally gets put on a boat and shoved aside so Asha can save the day with her friends instead. Her bond with her friends should be more developed, but it’s only hinted at — mostly because her friend group is just one giant Easter egg. (They’re human retreads of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs, with matching personality traits and costumes.)
The character who suffers the most, though, is Magnifico, partly because he has the biggest legacy to uphold. Disney fans, particularly the ones who consider the Disney Renaissance as the company’s most important era, have been calling on the company to bring back its “traditional villains.” Magnifico feels like he was born from a creator sighing deeply and saying, “Fine. Fine. Here, this one will keep you busy for a while.” Not even Chris Pine’s charisma can save Magnifico from being a mismatch of motivations and personality traits.
In the attempt to tap into fans’ nostalgia for morally simple monsters like Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent or Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston, the creators go out of their way to make Magnifico irredeemably evil, complete with a plot device literally informing the audience that he can’t possibly have a redemption arc, or any complexity at all. He’s a lesser copy of better, more intriguing villains before him, right down to his magical powers, denoted with swirling green light.
The songs are similarly all indebted to better songs that came before them, though some of them do extend beyond just the Disney canon. The “Welcome to Rosas” introduction song, for instance, just sounds like a lesser version of Encanto’s fast-paced family meet-and-greet. The group number “Knowing What We Know Now” sounds eerily like “Why We Build the Wall” from Hadestown, even though it has completely different connotations. The exception is perhaps “This Wish,” the movie’s big “I Want” song, where DeBose lets her voice soar. But that can’t make up for the egregious “I’m a Star,” a didactic group number with talking animals and plants that feels like a Family Guy cutaway making fun of Disney movies. It also contains the line “When it comes to the universe, we’re all shareholders,” which really just emphasizes that this movie was designed for maximum return on Disney’s investment.
The one new thing Disney does play with in Wish is the animation style. It seems that the industrywide push to innovate beyond the imitation-Pixar style that long ago became standard issue for American CG animation has finally caught up with Disney. While it’s nice to see the studio finally attempting something different, the end result feels like it needed more time to develop. Wish’s hybrid approach, with 2D digital paint over 3D rendering, looks unfinished and flattened. That’s particularly jarring when movies like DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys and shows like Blue Eye Samurai have pulled it off so well.
Some shots, particularly the wide-panned outdoor vistas, are marvelous: the starscape over the city, the view of Asha running through the forest, Rosas’ wishes trickling down through the sky. But in close shots, especially in the indoor scenes, everything looks flat and lifeless, which is actually pretty fitting for the movie itself.
Wish was supposed to be Disney’s big 100-year celebration, built on a legacy of movies that came before it. But it clings to the past with an iron grip. That past is safe. It’s nostalgic. It makes easy money. But sticking hard to what came before never serves Disney well. The studio has historically tried some big swings. Sometimes it sticks the landing and ushers in the Disney Renaissance; sometimes it pushes its fans past their comfort zone, and produces projects that are slow to find an audience. But even its supposed “failures,” like Strange World, Treasure Planet, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, tell new stories, try different things, and have a lot of soul. Wish doesn’t. Wish plays every element of its story, songs, and style so safe that it ends up reading like a parody of a Disney movie, and not even in a fun way, like Enchanted.
When the credits roll on Wish, the images accompanying the names aren’t from the movie itself, in the usual Disney style. Instead, they’re sparkling golden constellation-style outlines of classic (and obscure) characters from past Disney movies. That’s the essence of Wish: just the faintest sketch of every good movie that preceded it, without much else to add.
Wish is out in theaters on Nov. 22.