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There’s a character in Disney’s self-mythologizing movie Wish whose life dream is to inspire the next generation. He lives in Rosas, the fictional kingdom ruled by the self-taught sorcerer Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine). For reasons that remain murky, the wizard hoards his constituents’ wishes in his castle tower. When residents of Rosas turn 18, they relinquish their greatest dream in hopes that one day their benevolent dictator will fulfill it. Magnifico, like all authoritarian leaders, insists that it’s a small price to pay for their safety and eternal peace of mind.
The whole premise is very Disney, and Wish plays out as one would expect. Magnifico meets his match in Asha (Ariana DeBose), a 17-year-old girl who dares to question the order of things. Their encounter represents the generational crossroads that Disney finds itself at during its centennial. In him, a symbol of authority and empire. In her, a sense of revolution and community.
The Bottom Line Trapped between past and present.
Release date: Wednesday, Nov. 22
Cast: Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk, Angelique Cabral, Victor Garber, Natasha Rothwell
Director: Chris Buck, Fawn Veerasunthorn
Screenwriters: Jennifer Lee, Allison Moore
Rated PG, 1 hour 32 minutes
Founded in 1923, Disney has grown from a modest animation studio started by two brothers into a billion-dollar behemoth. The company is a global brand with dozens of subsidiaries; it’s a political donor (as most corporations these days are) and a critical part, for better or for worse, of our cultural consciousness. It was the standard for animation and enduring world-building. But it also represents conservative values, imperialism and regressive social norms. What does Disney, preparing to enter a new century, want to be now?
If Wish is any clue, it seems Disney would rather not commit to any single direction. Directed by Chris Buck (Frozen) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (Raya and the Last Dragon), the film represents an awkward marriage between old and new ways. Even during its more successful moments, Wish’s magic falls flat. The film is weighed down by its purpose: to revel in Disney nostalgia while soaring into the future.
We meet Asha as she prepares to celebrate her grandfather Sabino’s (Victor Garber) 100th birthday. She wants the king to fulfill her grandpa’s wish at that evening’s kingdom-wide wish ceremony. The plan is simple: Asha will ace her interview to become Magnifico’s apprentice, and once she gets the most coveted job in the kingdom, she will ask him the big question. An eager Asha lays it all out for her friends who work in the castle. The gang, which includes best friend Dahlia (Jennifer Kumiyama) and comical cynic Gabo (Harvey Guillén), meet her scheme with some skepticism but try to be encouraging. Plus, she has the favor of Magnifico’s wife, Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral), who sees something of herself in the optimistic and clumsy teenager.
Asha’s meeting with Magnifico starts off on promising ground. The two share stories of loss — Asha’s father died when she was young and Magnifico had his world taken from him under tragic, but vague, circumstances. They also duet on “At All Costs,” one of the film’s best songs. DeBose is a boon to Wish, granting depth and real emotion to every number on which she is featured.
The pair seem aligned until Asha starts to question Magnifico’s process. Why does he keep all the wishes locked in glowing orbs that float in his conservatory? Why only grant one at a time? And how come he gets to decide what is best for the kingdom? Not accustomed to being challenged, Magnifico flies into a rage and decides to punish Asha by giving her a front-row seat to her grandfather’s wish not being fulfilled.
The moment crushes Asha and radicalizes her. Under the starry night sky that evening, she sings an impassioned song (“This Wish“) about wanting more for herself and her kingdom. The universe hears her and delivers Asha a gift in the form of Star, a buttony celestial creature similar to Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. The magic orb gives Asha’s goat, Valentino, a voice (Alan Tudyk), and together the trio set out to free Sabino’s wish.
Their mission expands once Magnifico senses another magical presence in his kingdom. (The autodidactic wizard is the only one allowed to practice magic in Rosas). Wish, then, becomes a quest to save the kingdom from the hands of a power-hungry ruler, to imbue the people with a sense of their own strength and to function as brand affirmation. (The film is considered an ode to the legacy of the studio’s signature “wishing star.”)
There are nods and gestures to the company’s history here that will delight longtime fans and a narrative aimed to empower, à la recent Disney films like Frozen and Raya and the Last Dragon. (The screenplay is written by Frozen’s Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore.) A hybrid animation style (a mix of 2D and 3D) blends Disney’s glittering past with its present, though it lacks sophistication and meticulousness. The music — Julia Michael and Benjamin Rice penned seven original songs and Dave Metzger composed the score — attempts a similar type of fusion, mixing infectious contemporary pop beats with lyrics honoring singalong-friendly roots. The diverse cast deserves praise: Asha’s community is populated by a sturdy team of voice actors.
Asha — a courageous biracial teenager — represents the future of Rosas, and perhaps the brand, too. She loves her people and holds radical ideas about their ability to wield collective power. Her narrative arc is really about her becoming a dissenter and pseudo-revolutionary figure. DeBose delivers a fine voice performance, but her most memorable moments are during Asha’s solos.
Pine’s entertainingly performed Magnifico is the past — a self-absorbed king whose fears propel him to cling to power and strip his constituents of their freedom. In “This Is the Thanks I Get,” sung by Pine, one can hear the voice of every aggrieved adult offended by the fearlessness of younger generations. But the story is skittish when it comes to his motivations, which ultimately does the film a disservice because it makes his turn toward evil feel too abrupt and random.
At the heart of Wish is a topical and winning formula, so it’s a shame that it’s squandered for the sake of a lukewarm, ultimately safe conclusion. The film co-opts and parades a rebelliousness it doesn’t want to commit to: Good wins, but only within the existing structure. If our continuously unprecedented times have taught us any lessons, it’s that the present-day order will need nothing less than a total overhaul. If the last number of Wish — a powerful reprise of “This Wish” — tells us anything, it’s that Asha and her people know that, too.