Disney celebrates its centenary with a coldly calculated confection, reports Dan Slevin.
It has been a tough centenary year for Disney. Boardroom reorganisations, stock price slumps, the sheen coming off the streaming business and being forced to dump the star they were building the next generation of Marvel movies around, have all been unwanted distractions when they should have been on a highly profitable victory lap.
Wish was supposed to be the icing on the birthday cake, a chance to show off Disney’s talent for animated enchantment but instead it arrived to lukewarm reviews and box office disappointment.
That’s not to say that Wish isn’t entertaining. Quite the opposite. In fact, a film that has been so thoroughly reverse-engineered from the need to show off 100 years of Disney history has no right to be this much fun but Wish is a monument to Disney’s corporate skillset – its stewardship of its IP – rather than any filmmaking magic.
The film is set on the fictional Mediterranean island of Rosas where a sorcerer named Magnifico (Chris Pine) has used his ability to grant people’s wishes to establish his own kingdom, one that seems benevolent and peaceful but is really just a vehicle for his narcissistic obsessions.
Magnifico demands that everyone on the island surrenders their greatest wish to him in exchange for the possibility that he might make that wish come true. It’s a heavily skewed deal, because you forget your wish when you give it up and only a few wishes that Magnifico chooses will ever be granted.
But in an example of wishful thinking that I’m sure will be familiar to anyone who buys lottery tickets, the people of Rosas seem pretty happy with the arrangement.
That is until young Asha (Ariana DeBose) interviews for the job of Magnifico’s apprentice and discovers that the odds are so heavily stacked against the ordinary people that they really only exist to feed the king’s ego. Dismayed, she makes her own wish – on a star, no less – and is as surprised as you or I would be when the star itself comes to her aid.
Throughout the film we encounter cameo appearances of characters from Disney’s golden age, making Wish a kind of origin story for them all as well as an origin story for the potent Disney theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star”.
As I say, something designed to meet all the corporate requirements for a birthday present to itself shouldn’t be as much fun as it is but that, too, also says something about Disney’s legacy and how well-drilled the machine now is. The story for Wish was co-written by “Chief Creative Officer” Jennifer Lee (who created Frozen) and is directed by two other Frozen alums, Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn (who I interviewed for this outlet back when she was head of story on Raya and the Last Dragon).
The songs (Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice) are perfectly fine, the voice work from the leads – especially Pine who I recognised immediately even before I saw his name in the credits – is great and the story has enough humour and drama to be a satisfying watch for all ages.
Wish doesn’t tug the heart strings like recent Disney or Pixar productions such as Coco or Encanto, or soar like Moana, and I suspect that’s not going to be good enough for a company with so much to celebrate.
Wish is rated PG for violence and is screening in theatres across New Zealand.