Of the many times I have been to Disneyland with my family, the one thing I still vividly remember is a certain song from the fireworks show. The song was titled “Remember… Dreams Come True,” more commonly known as “Wishes.” Performed by a children’s choir and a collage of iconic tunes from several Disney movies, the show moved me in ways that I didn’t expect as an adult, particularly a segment where all the Disney characters, one by one, say what they wish for in their respective stories. It was an emotional reminder that no matter how old we get, we should never stop dreaming. Disney perfects this message in nearly every film, with its iconic image and phrase of “wishing upon a star.” So what happens when you make a movie that’s just about that?
Wish has been widely marketed as a way to commemorate Disney’s 100th anniversary. For better or worse, the movie feels exactly that. It feels like the end product of filmmakers who gathered in a room, said they wanted to celebrate 100 years, and worked backwards off of that idea. Funny enough, that very approach results in the film lacking any sort of identity on its own. By focusing on such a broad idea as “the origin of wishing upon a star,” the film becomes oddly unspecific and frustratingly vague.
That isn’t to say that there’s nothing interesting about Wish. The concept of a traditional kingdom in which the King has magical abilities that can grant people’s wishes is ripe with thematic ideas, and the script occasionally flirts with them. But time and time again, conversations get sidelined, dramatic scenes get undercut, and humorous digressions are prioritized over exploring a deep idea. We end up with a fairytale world in which the internal logic is never given time to be fully explained.
We learn through 17-year-old Asha (Ariana DeBose) that King Magnifico (Chris Pine) looks after the kingdom of Rosas and, with his magical powers, protects every citizen’s wishes. Through some rushed exposition, the script explains that Magnifico doesn’t grant every single wish at once. It’s only something he does once a month, while the rest of the wishes are stored forever. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore even suggest that this is how a ruler holds onto their power, by giving false hope to their people.
Asha, however, puts other people in front of herself. She looks after her mother and, most of all, her 100-year-old grandfather, who is still waiting for his wish to be granted. In an attempt to become the King’s apprentice, Asha learns of the King’s selfish motivations to remain in power. Hoping for the people of Rosas to learn the truth and have a better future, Asha wishes on a star, not knowing that an actual magical star would arrive and answer her call.
When all the narrative pieces are set in place, this is usually where most films would begin to flesh out their ideas, make turning points, play a reveal, and even complicate the story with nuance and thought. Think of the Monsters, Inc. reveal about child laughter, or Moana revealing where the ocean’s call is coming from, or Encanto revealing Bruno’s role in the family. Even the controversial surprise villain twists in Frozen or Coco are at least in service of making their stories more dramatically interesting. When done right, a reveal complicates the plot, pushes the thematic message closer to its resolution, and keeps the film exciting.
Wish lacks that dramatic excitement because it is nearly devoid of surprises from start to finish. When the Star arrives, we know exactly how the rest of the film will go. It is nearly identical to seeing Merida’s mother transform into a bear in Brave, where the film suddenly becomes even more predictable.
It’s such a shame because there are nooks and crannies in the script that could suggest something deeper. We’re told through a classic storybook that King Magnifico studied magic and formed Rosas because of an awful tragedy in his past – we never find out what that is, nor does it ever come back to challenge him and his current actions. We also learn early on that when a citizen gives their wish away to the King, they will forget what it is. That is correct; everyone has no memory of their deepest desire. They all have an aching feeling, but they can’t pinpoint what it is. Wouldn’t that affect the level of happiness and productivity in this kingdom? What does it mean when all the people turn to the King to grant those wishes then? Is the film about our blind faith in our leaders? At some point, the King comments that he didn’t take any of those wishes; they were all willingly given to him, and that his magic is such an easy answer to them. So, is there something to be said about laziness and lack of self-responsibility, then? Is this like Incredibles 2, where Screenslaver argues that the presence of superheroes (in this case, a wish-granting sorcerer) causes humans to become overly reliant on them?
These are all fascinating questions that Wish could be asking from start to finish, giving itself a chance to give one definitive answer at the end. Some of the most celebrated animated films excel at this. But the script never dives in. It’s a first-draft flirtation of what could potentially be talked about, but it never does the sophisticated work of talking about it.
There are some beautiful lines in the film, like when Asha talks about how dreams should always belong to the person, and even if dreams don’t come true for everyone, at least everyone deserves a chance to make them true. In her eyes, that’s what a good ruler should be, someone who uses their power to help encourage those dreams, to empower their people. Let me be clear: these are all good ideas. But on a writing level, you have to do the hard work of introducing them, challenging them, complicating them, and then earning the emotion when you play your final card.
Think back to Frozen’s play on love. A dying Anna is told that “an act of true love will thaw a frozen heart.” At this point, the movie steers us into interpreting that message as a true love’s kiss. Why wouldn’t we think that? It’s a staple in Disney movies. Furthermore, the film itself has been setting this up from the beginning, from Anna wanting to marry Hans to slowly realizing that Kristoff is the man for her. We expect that kiss will save Anna, which is why when it doesn’t come, we’re all shocked, at least for a moment. It is when Anna saves Elsa, and as a result, saves herself, that everything clicks. It’s that “OH!” moment where the audience finally understands the message of the movie.
There is one thematic idea in Wish, and based on where it’s used, it’s supposed to be its biggest message. But it’s glossed over so quickly through an animal musical number that the movie never takes a breath to actually talk about what it means. We don’t hear about this idea ever again until the third act when it suddenly comes back into play. In a climax that’s supposed to be emotionally cathartic, it just plays like a convenient plot device that solves our heroine’s impossible situation. There is no moment of realization for the audience, no chance for us to figure out what the movie is actually about.
From the premise and the world-building alone, plus the commemoration of Disney’s 100th year, it is obvious that Wish wants to take on the traditional fairytale. Even the visual aesthetic, being a blend of 3D animation and storybook illustrations, shows its goal of fusing something simple with something modern. But there’s a difference between simple and basic.
Too often, the 2D look results in the film looking flat and dry. Though DeBose voices Asha with a ton of personality and Pine gets to channel his Dungeons & Dragons silliness into the villainous King, both characters feel severely underwritten compared to Disney’s past efforts. Even the supporting and comic relief characters don’t have much to do. Asha has seven friends clearly modeled after the seven dwarves from Snow White, and maybe only two of them have something dramatically interesting going on. But the biggest misfire would be the talking goat, Valentino. Serving no story purpose other than to get laughs, you’d wish voice actor Alan Tudyk (Moana) would go back to being a pet rooster.
Thankfully, the film’s lead star character shines (pun intended). Silent but endlessly expressive, the Star will certainly delight audiences young and old as it floats around looking like a cross between a Luma (from the Super Mario games) and the malfunctioning B-bot from Ron’s Gone Wrong. The film has its occasional moment of brilliance, whether it’s a catchy song, a cute Easter egg, a hilarious pun, or just a sequence that’s beautifully animated. But every high point in Wish is met with a missed opportunity elsewhere, and the missed opportunities are nearly all on a story and character level.
For (literally) a century now, Disney has mastered their formula through countless iconic stories. A celebration of that should come in the form of something that represents everything they have achieved, but just as importantly, where they want to go. I would argue that a film like Frozen or Moana is the perfect candidate. Even though both films follow the Disney formula to a T, they each contain specific characters, messages, cultural aesthetics, and personality to stand out.
It’s difficult to argue that Wish is a film with an identity outside of just being “the 100th-year movie.” It’s Disney celebrating their formula by presenting… just the formula… in its most basic form. When you don’t have specific ingredients to fill in the Xs and Ys of your formula, not only can it not function properly, but nobody will understand what you’re making to begin with. As someone who has cried over a fireworks show, a shell in 2016, and a doorknob in 2021, I wished for a much better Disney movie than this.
Walt Disney Studios will release Wish only in theaters on November 22.