Walt Disney Animation's "Wish" is stunning to look at with textured and rich watercolor-inspired animation and easter egg treasures for audiences nostalgic for the classics. But it is also more concept than story: A strained and forgettable attempt to pay homage to the studio’s 100 years. The origin of the wishing star is as fine a motivation as any for a jumping off point, but “Wish,” directed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, seems to have been drawn not from someone’s earnest imagination and dreams, but a corporate board trying to reverse-engineer magic and charm.
Case in point: In one of the awfully generic songs, “I Am a Star,” a cute, talking rabbit chirpily sings to our heroine Asha that “when it comes to the universe, we’re all shareholders.” Ugh.
I’m probably not alone in having learned several vocabulary words from Disney songs as a child, but there is something so dispiriting about hearing the word “shareholders” in what is supposed to be a rallying, inspirational anthem in a fairy tale world where talking goats and magic exist. There is no sign of corporations or public offerings in the Kingdom of Rosas, though that could have been an interesting path to take. Instead, this is a place founded by a guy, Magnifico (Chris Pine), who has the ability to grant wishes (and other magic things, too).
Now, you may think you know what a wish is, but this movie needs it to be a little more complicated than that and thus has to explain it over and over again to justify itself. Wishes aren’t just small wants, they’re everything – your soul, your reason for living – and Magnifico has convinced all his subjects to give him theirs upon their 18th birthday for protection. He stores these wishes in floating orbs in an observatory in his castle, that he’ll then grant back to some at a later date.
Asha, the lead voiced by Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story” Oscar-winner and the reason “Angela Bassett did the thing” lives rent-free in my head) is a spirted subject of Rosas who is about to turn 18 and give her wish to Magnifico. She is fan No.1 of Rosas and Magnifico, but when she discovers (about 15 minutes into the film) that he doesn’t have any intention of granting her 100-year-old grandfather’s wish, she turns on him and Rosas and begins an accidental revolution. This is after Asha and Magnifico sing a duet “At All Costs” that is fully a love song about two people but has been shoehorned in here to be about Rosas and the wishes. It’s strangely awkward.
The original songs, by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice, are slick and poppy and ultimately inoffensive. Their appeal might depend on how you felt about Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs for “The Greatest Showman.” If you loved those, the “Wish” soundtrack is probably for you. If not, sorry, though “Knowing What I Know Now” is pretty catchy.
“Wish” also doesn’t seem to have a solid handle on how the lack of these wishes affect the population of Rosas. A few walk around like sleepy shells, but most everyone else seems happy and content even after having volunteered this essential part of their being. Maybe that’s the point? But this is a movie that has some surprising parallels (in themes and unresolved storylines) with “Don’t Worry Darling” that don’t stop at Chris Pine relishing his handsome villain era.
The animation really is quite lovely overall and striking after so many years of computer generated smoothness and perfection. But this is also a strange mixture of both styles and the storybook like textures makes some of the characters faces and the star look almost too fake for the world they’re in.
The star, a speechless innocent, is also lacking a certain spark that might make it as iconic as the filmmakers want it to be. Or perhaps it just has the misfortune of looking too similar to the nihilist star from “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” from earlier this year.
“Wish” is harmless holiday programming for the family, but it’s strange to watch a movie about celebrating the individual “star” in everyone that feels like it was made by mandate, not a dream. And I would bet that every person who worked on this film probably grew up loving Disney and that each has dozens of ideas more inspired than this to commemorate 100 years and take this company into the future. Maybe next time.
“Wish,” a Walt Disney Co. release in theaters Tuesday, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “thematic elements and mild action.” Running time: 92 minutes. Two stars out of four.