2023 hasn’t been the dream year Disney would have wanted for its 100th birthday. Industrial action aside, its films have had a bumpy ride: those live action reworkings of animated classics are still getting the thumbs down, Elemental, its only animation – so far – this year had mixed reactions, superhero fatigue is taking its toll and even the return of Indy wasn’t the sure thing everybody expected. So the pressure is on Wish, its latest animation, which aims to resurrect much of what turned its earlier movies into real cinematic events.
The Mediterranean island of Rosas is something of a paradise. The people, under the benevolent dictatorship of King Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine) enjoy a peaceful, happy life – on one condition. They each surrender their most treasured wish into his protection. Some have them returned but, as teenager Asha (the voice of Ariana DeBose) discovers, there’s a dark reason why he holds on to them, something that nobody else suspects. An outcast for speaking up, she makes a passionate plea to the stars for help and has her wish granted – by an actual star. With its magical powers, it helps Asha, her friends and her family fight back against Magnifico and win a better future, one where everybody’s dreams can come true.
All of which adds up to Disney’s birthday card to itself, wrapped up in an attempt to revive the spirit of the studio we all knew and loved. There’s a thinly disguised sub-text here as well, a reassurance that despite some variable films over recent years, the studio, its values and the quality of its output hasn’t really changed – or, put more succinctly, “Trust us, we’re Disney.” Whether you completely buy that is up to you, but there’s a touch of desperation about it that’s almost impossible to disguise. Not that the younger members of the audience are likely to pick up on that.
They’ll be lapping up a story and a style that harks back to one of the studio’s biggest successes, Frozen, directed by Chris Buck, who this time shares the helm with newcomer Fawn Veerasunthawn. He’s also on scriptwriting duties, along with Jennifer Lee, who wrote both the original and its sequel. There’s references and nods in the direction of other Disney favourites – no prizes for guessing the main one – and the film is based on a similar model. It is, however, more variable. The “comedy pet” this time is little goat Valentino (voiced by Alan Tudyk) who, by his own admission, is just three weeks old. Odd, then, that he’s given the voice of a middle aged man, but more problematic is the fact that he’s simply not funny and more irritating than cute.
The songs, a Disney animation staple, are equally inconsistent. Lyrics like “when it comes to the universe, we’re all shareholders” hardly trip off the tongue and are downright unkind to the singers but, like most Disney villains, Chris Pine nabs the best number, “This Is The Thanks I Get” and gives it all he’s got. He’s a good choice for the vain, dictatorial king, but it’s DeBose who’s the stand-out, bringing all her energy and vocal power to Asha and giving the film a sympathetically strong central character. There’s plenty to like about Wish but, in truth, it struggles to re-create the nostalgia that Disney is aiming for in the hope it will bring audiences back to the fold. It’s colourful, engaging and energetic enough, but it’s not the film to restore an affection and reputation that’s taken something of a knock.
Animation | UK cinemas, 24 November 2023 | Walt Disney Studios | Certificate: U | Dirs. Chris Buck, Fawn Veerasunthawn | The voices of Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk, Angelique Cabral, Victor Garber and Evan Peters.