Taken for what its title represents, Wish maintains what has become the comprehensive theme and guiding principle throughout the history of the Walt Disney Company. Proudly continuing a century now after its founding, each new creative effort proves the Disney well of artistic storytelling striving for wish fulfillment remains bouyant and bottomless. Wish is a sparkling and meaningful new entry that genuflects to its history and stamps a little piece of its own.
A pedestal-mounted storybook—complete with the classic “once upon a time” story starter—opens the unfurling legend of Wish and introduces us to our female lead Asha, voiced by West Side Story Oscar winner Ariana DeBose. The paneled storybook and DeBose’s first number, “Welcome to Rosas,” follows the Disney trend of splashing a convenient exposition dump and energetic setting tour of a song in the first ten minutes. They tell of the benevolent sorcerer Magnifico (Chris Pine) who has established a protected and ethnically ambiguous utopian island society in the Mediterranean Sea likely in the 19th century.
The citizens on the island of Rosas are granted Magnifico’s monarchical protection from the evil outside world in exchange for submitting their heart’s deepest wish on their 18th birthday. Once traded, those dreams are forgotten by the individuals and manifested as floating pearlescent orbs kept by Magnifico and his loyal wife and queen Amaya (TV actress Angelique Cabral of Life in Pieces). Each month, in a grand public ceremony, Magnifico grants one lucky citizen’s deposited and deserving wish.
As evident by the title again and this fictional society’s norms, wishes are held to be the highest spiritual currency in Wish. They are said to “drive your heart and make you who you are.” The simplicity of closing your eyes and imagining what you would wish for and why in these characters’ places is an inspiring draw granted to the audience. True to life and the animated movie, those closely-held internal passions have literal and figurative worth and intangible consequences if they are lost or destroyed.
Flanked by her spunky pet baby goat Valentino (voice acting extraordinaire and Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk), the 17-year-old tour guide Asha is interviewing with Amaya and Magnifico to be his new assistant. In her audience with Magnifico, she pines and solicits for her grandfather Sabino’s wish (Victor Garber) to be the next one granted on what would be his 100th birthday. This peek behind the curtain, however, reveals a biased and hoarding Magnifico the public doesn’t see. Pushing back against the vitality of those collective wishes, Magnifico asserts why someone would want to know a wish that could never be.
As a measure of national crowd control, the possessive and paranoid Magnifico grants only those wishes he deems “deserving” and, more particularly, safe from any chance of usurping his power or inspiring the Rosas public. Without oversight or public scrutiny, this means most hopes and wishes are never granted by the sorcerer and none of the forgotten dreams are given back to the people to achieve on their own. This doesn’t sit right with Asha, and this detainment of personal and intellectual freedoms flesh out the underlying social commentary messages of Wish.
When Asha’s true and generous heart wishes upon a star, a little whirling dervish of that celestial magic comes to her, shows off mad crochet skills, and begins to animate the flora and fauna around her, including Valentino. Naturally, for a family film like Wish arriving for the Thanksgiving box office season, you can’t go wrong with the tomfoolery of talking animals. This all leads to plenty of hijinks and song-and-dance opportunities. Coupled with a pack of (unfortunately) underdeveloped teenage buddies, those new friends from nature join Asha’s cause of ousting Magnifico as he begins to consume the orbs’ energy for himself and dabble in forbidden dark magic.
With positive representation in mind, the screenplay by Mouse House hitmaker Jennifer Lee (the Frozen series) and TV specialist Allison Moore (Powers) collecting story contributions from veteran animation director Chris Buck (Tarzan), Zac and Mia’s Andrew Rothschild, and the Raya and the Last Dragon team of Fawn Veerasunthorn and Carlos López Estrada puts forward a very solid female heroine at the center of Wish around a hodge-podge of solid ingredients. Supported by Ariana DeBose’s talented pipes, Asha is presented as an upstander of honesty, confidence, and strength devoid of any pressing romantic crutches. She is, simply, her own woman and that is always a worthwhile example to share.
Across from Asha, Chris Pine’s heel looks the part and sounds it too in dialogue with the actor’s sly speech register. However, the Star Trek star is sorely overmatched in the singing department when called upon, especially in his solo “This is the Thanks I Get?” His rough delivery adds to an over-obvious villain that shouldn’t have surprised his loyal subjects this long before Asha outs him in time for this movie. In that regard, some predictability and convenience seep into Wish and its sprint to save the day and realm.
That said, Wish still aims for and touches plenty of the shiny spectacle it sought with its merger of CGI animation blending a layer of traditional hand-drawn pencil strokes into its aesthetic designs. The visual beauty of Wish does something surprising most Disney animated films do not normally do and that is outshine the musical bread-and-butter. Outside of “This Wish,” the main power ballad by Grammy winner Julia Michaels being marketed widely to promote the film, Wish lacks that second and third supporting show-stopper (the ensemble-driven “I’m a Star” sure tries) that multiplies memorable moments and demands soundtrack replay. Luckily, what’s present overall with an admirable lead, fitting in-house tribute, and sound teachable moments make up for lesser sweep.