Directors – Chris Buck, Fawn Veerasunthorn – 2023 – US – Cert. U – 95m
The ruler of a kingdom where wishes can come true, undone by assuming the role of gatekeeper, morphs into a tyrant – latest Disney animated feature is out in UK cinemas on Friday, November 24th
A believer in the idea that wishes can come true, a man trains himself in the art of sorcery and, with his wise and faithful wife at his side, sets himself up as King Magnifico (voice: Chris Pine) of the Mediterranean island of Rosas with his wife Queen Amaya (voice: Angelique Cabral). The king wants to create a land where wishes truly can come true, and to that end he has his subjects hand over their most heartfelt wish for safekeeping on their 18th birthday, after which the wish is erased from the wisher’s mind. He examines the wishes for himself, decides which ones would benefit society, and periodically has ceremonies where a citizen is granted their wish.
It’s a heavy workload, though, and now he’s advertising for a new assistant. Soon to be 18 teenager Asha (voice: Ariana DeBose) applies, although the King is rumoured to be difficult to work with. Don’t ask to see the wishes, she’s warned, but then she gets on so well with the King that he admits her to the vast chamber where the wishes are stored. Then she blows it by asking if her grandpa’s wish could be granted on his 100th birthday.
Being pure in heart, as she later wanders around the island, she bumps into a small, five-pointed object about the size of a human head floating in the air. A little star.
Before you know it, she’s made a wish and light has soared into the heavens, a meteorological phenomenon that at once delights the island’s populace with its beauty and panics the king into thinking a rival sorcerer is out to usurp him and harm the kingdom and its people. All he can think to do is open a dark sorcery book to find spells to defend himself and the kingdom. But then the dark forces he unleashes begin to transform him.
This extraordinary plot outline has the potential to be one of the best animated features the Disney organisation has ever made, articulating as it does a major element in the Disney ethos, best summed up in the song from Pinocchio (Norm Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, 1940), When You Wish Upon a Star, a beautiful acoustic guitar rendition of which can be heard by anyone sitting right through to the end of the credits. In addition, the screenplay cleverly confronts that philosophy with the idea of the tyrannical ruler who crushes dreams in pursuit of personal power and dynasty maintenance, a theme as relevant to day’s world as any.
To bring such a vision to the screen, numerous traps need to be avoided. Director Chris Buck (director of the moneyspinning yet ultimately uninspired Frozen) who originated the idea is not the man to avoid them, nor it would seem is his co-director Fawn Veerasunthorn. Closing guitar rendition aside, the songs that punctuate the proceedings are of the banal pop variety that feel as if they were designed by committee (go on – watch Snow White or Beauty and the Beast and tell me Wish’s songs are comparable – they aren’t in anything like the same league). The filmmakers are trying so hard to make cuddly, family-friendly Disney fare that they completely fail to deliver what should be a truly terrifying villain in the strongest Disney tradition (Snow White’s Wicked Queen, Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, Aladdin’s Jafar).
Admittedly there are lots of clever elements in here – Asha and her family and friends are well-rounded and likeable, and a clever device has the star cause hitherto dumb animals such as Asha’s pet goat Valentino (voice: Alan Tudyk) to talk – but the problem lies in the deeply misjudged and overly cute vision of the directors.
When Disney or the organisation that now bears his name get their animated movies right, they make memorable, timeless, classics. Given the trademark Disney ideas at its core, this should have been another one of those, but, alas, it is not: instead, it’s a travesty.
Wish is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, November 24th.