‘Wish’: Disney’s Celebration of Itself Only Leaves Nostalgia for Its Glory Days

Like the mighty empire it is, Disney has been spending 2023 celebrating its centennial. Understandably, one of the world’s most recognizable brands wants to bask in its longevity. But “Wish” is a curious way to carry on the party via the studio’s animation department. Animation is where Disney truly began its conquest for world domination, but this surprisingly bland offering is both small in scale and in boldness. Its story is pushed aside to make way for easy nods and winks, nostalgic traps, and unconvincing reminders of why we should all love Disney. Of course, let’s not be too harsh. When it comes to the basics a very young audience member might still be entertained by this movie and its fleeting charms. It’s the adults that have to accompany their children, many of whom have vivid memories of Disney’s glory days, who will be left empty-handed.

The story drops into the magical kingdom of Rosas, an island lorded over by King Magnifico (Chris Pine). It’s a relatively stable place, mostly because Magnifico has the ability to collect people’s wishes. So the inhabitants of Rosas have handed him over all their wishes, which he keeps in glass bubbles high above his castle. If nobody has any wishes in life, they will become passive denizens. Someday Magnifico might decide it’s time for your wish to be granted. Enter 17-year-old Asha (Ariana DeBose), who is applying to become the benevolent tyrant’s new apprentice. But when she questions his methods, Asha is quickly kicked out of Magnifico’s presence. There’s a slight problem for the dictator because Asha was raised by her late father to wish upon a star, and thus keep your wishes to yourself. She makes such a wish and an actual Star drops down! Tinkling and cheery like a living emoji, Star will help Asha change the people of Rosas and rise up against Magnifico. 

“Wish” is the first Disney animated feature in a long time that truly feels like pure advertising. It has an appealing visual style in its design, which gives off the look of sketched animation. It doesn’t go for colors that pop. The plot is as subdued as the look. Directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn helmed Disney’s smash hit “Frozen,” yet here don’t show off the same kind of deliriously engaging storytelling. There’s not much to the plot of “Wish” because it’s so bare and phoned in. Magnifico has everyone’s wishes trapped as he struts around, animated with great cocky gestures and hair, and Asha just has to free everyone with the help of Star. In-between the key confrontations are a few funny gags, most involving Star and Asha’s pet goat, Valentino (Alan Tudyk). The latter is given the ability to talk by Star and Tudyk gives the animal some hilarious, droll moments. Asha’s 100-year-old grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber) tugs at our heart strings because his wish has never been fulfilled, which means you know it will by the end credits.

There is much skillful work present in this movie but it offers nothing new. Nothing is dared and everything feels manufactured. The songs by Dave Metzger, Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice are lively but sound like carbon copies of everything Lin-Manuel Miranda ever wrote, complete with his knack for rhyming a single word to death. A few do work better such as “I’m a Star,” though the glory days of “The Lion King” and “Frozen” are very missed. The characters equally feel slapped on with little purpose other than to fill villain and hero roles. Magnifico is performed with spirited villainy by Pine, but there’s not much to him. Ariana DeBose is just as good as Asha, but her character also functions as nothing more than a walking song and dance number. Over at Pixar they’ve been delivering films with rich and entertaining concepts like “Turning Red,” though Disney figures audiences are easier to attract with a simple premise in the form of “Wish.”

The final standoff with Magnifico is shockingly quick and simple. Over in a flash, the movie quickly wraps everything up with an end credits sequence featuring classic Disney characters drawn next to all the names and positions. So what are we left with? Star as a creation is undeniably lovable, especially when it puts on different hats and other items it finds laying around. Chris Pine is having fun even if he’s not really allowed to let loose. Magnifico is the tamest Disney villain in a long time. What matters to Disney is that the message is delivered that we should keep wishing upon a star, while whistling the tune and buying passes to the theme parks. But of course there’s a reason the company is so successful. It knows families will indeed file in with the young ones to have a good time. Some of this movie is indeed just that, but this studio is capable of so much more.

Wish” releases Nov. 22 in theaters nationwide.