The Walt Disney Company recently turned 100 years old, and to mark the centennial it has released a new animated film based around a star — not an alum from the Mickey Mouse Club, but an actual star, as in “When you wish upon a…”
Wish takes place on the magical island of Rosas (we’re told it’s in the Mediterranean, and judging by the beautiful Andalusian architecture, I would place it somewhere off the coast of Spain). The sorcerer King Magnifico (Chris Pine) rules over the people, who offer him their wishes when they reach adulthood. He holds on to them for safekeeping and occasionally grants one at a big ceremony in front of the palace. But for the vast bulk of islanders who don’t get their wishes granted, it’s no matter, since they lose all memory of their dearest desires when they hand their wishes over to Magnifico.
Enthusiastic 17-year-old Asha (Ariana DeBose) is under consideration to be the sorcerer’s apprentice, but when Magnifico explains why her 100-year-old grandfather’s wish will never be granted (“too dangerous”), she begins to question the whole premise of his benevolent dictatorship. Why does he get to decide? Why should one man wield all that power? Why should the state be in the wish business at all? She makes her own unauthorized wish to the heavens, which brings down a tiny anthropomorphic star that threatens to upend Magnifico’s wish monopoly.
Aggressively cute and possessing the power to make animals and plants speak (although it never speaks itself), the star is like a special edition Pokémon that follows Asha through her rebel journey. In addition to dethroning Magnifico, it promises to unseat Baby Yoda as the most popular source of merchandise at the Disney Store.
In addition to drawing on a century of Disney mythology (wishing stars, talking animals, determined young women), Wish has shades of Thomas More, Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Aldous Huxley in its depictions of a paternalistic island utopia that offers comfort and safety to its citizens in return for surrendering a fundamental element of their humanity. Wish is a fable about political legitimacy, entrenched power, and the way it reasserts itself by dividing the people against one another.
We shouldn’t be surprised to encounter such mature themes from screenwriter Jennifer Lee and director Chris Buck, two creators of the Frozen movies, who team up with co-screenwriter Allison Moore and co-director Fawn Veerasunthorn for this new project — which is indeed the best new Disney animated feature since the original Frozen.
Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice have composed a soundtrack of radio-ready songs, of which Asha’s “I want” song “This Wish” is likeliest to approach “Let It Go” fame (although it will be a distant approach). The energetic opening number, “Welcome to Rosas,” sounds the most like a traditional Disney song from the Ashman-Menken renaissance, and quickly pulls us into the story. The villain songs are less successful, starting with the snoozy “At All Costs.” The score reaches its clumsiest point with the tonally dissonant “This Is the Thanks I Get?!” It’s a little too upbeat for a power-mad magician on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I doubt it will be competing with “Poor Unfortunate Souls” anytime soon at Disney karaoke.
The comic beats are also somewhat off in Wish, with Asha’s pet goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk) failing to settle into the Mushu/C-3PO mold that seems intended for him. Multiple laugh lines were met with silence at my screening. Only a scene in which he organizes a coup of chickens into a frenzied show choir achieves a satisfying level of lunacy, and much of that is the result of visual gags.
The computer-generated animation evokes Disney’s classic watercolor style while offering an extraordinary range of expression (Rebecca Wilson Bresee and Wayne Unten are the heads of animation). Bill Schwab’s shrewd art direction gives us an instant impression of the characters, from Magnifico’s silver-daddy smile to Asha’s flowing cornrows and freckles.
DeBose gives a powerful and personable voice to our protagonist. Even if we’re not quite sold on the star, or are suspicious of its intentions, we know we can trust in her. As the vain and self-aggrandizing Magnifico, Pine gives a compellingly manic voice to the best kind of villain — one who is operating under the delusion that he’s the hero.
In her revolution against this unaccountable power, Asha is joined by her seven friends Dahlia (Jennifer Kumiyama, producing great emotional resonance with a small voice), Gabo (Harvey Guillén, with just the right mixture of cynicism and moral clarity), Hal (Niko Vargas), Safi (Ramy Youssef), Dario (Jon Rudnitsky), Bazeema (Della Saba), and Simon (Evan Peters), the oldest of the group, who has already turned in his wish and seems to live under a cloud of ennui. All teenagers, they may remind young viewers of their older siblings organizing for causes from gun control to Gaza — and generally questioning authority as it has long existed.
You may believe that such explicitly political themes are too sophisticated for children, but we should remember that these are the very people who will mature in a period of eroding confidence in governments, institutions, and century-old entertainment behemoths. There’s no better time than now for them to start thinking about who, if anyone, is worthy of their trust. My sincerest wish is that they choose wisely.