Disney100 and Wish | Is it time for Disney to reinvent its style?

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Disney’s Wish has had a disappointing first weekend in cinemas, so we ask: is it time for Disney to reinvent its style? 

Whether you’re 15 or 50, it’s likely that you grew up watching Disney films. You may have learned about death from The Lion King, love from Cinderella, religious oppression from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, bravery in Mulan and identity in Moana. For decades, Disney has been the animation studio to beat, especially after it acquired Pixar and produced incredible works of art such as Inside Out and Up

As Disney celebrates its 100th anniversary, things seem to have shifted. Compared to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse and its sequel, Across The Spider-Verse, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Pinocchio and Wolfwalkers, Disney’s latest films seem muted and traditional in their approach to the magical stories they tell. 

Traditional isn’t a bad thing, and Disney has still produced some great films in the last few years. What’s more, Encanto was a beautiful tribute to Colombian culture and Strange World finally introduced Disney’s first openly LGBTQ+ character. Frozen II, released in 2019, feels like the last time the studio managed to at least partly capture the pure magic of its earlier features (although Encanto's many fans would perhaps counter that.) 

The studio’s latest film, Wish, has just been released in cinemas, but it failed to recapture the expected level of magic. It grossed $49m worldwide, which isn’t a bad opening weekend score, but perhaps a little on the low end for a juggernaut like Disney, especially during such a huge anniversary.

Wish also received lacklustre reviews from critics. Our very own Simon Brew had this to say in his three-star review of Wish: “The welcome, brisk 93-minute running time accomplishes much, but I didn’t feel it fully got on top of its premise.”

Wish tells the story of Asha, a young woman who rebels against a villainous king. It has many of Disney’s trademark ingredients; songs, a cheeky animal sidekick (that would be Valentino, a goat, voiced by Alan Tyduk, a Disney regular) and a fantastical story, designed to impress and inspire, set in a far away kingdom. And credit where credit is due, Wish does combine two different styles. You’ve got modern computer animation mixed with traditional hand drawn animation. It pays tribute to Disney’s own roots while also retaining that modern sleekness that has come to define the studio’s later films. 

Read more: Podcast: in conversation with Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer, Jennifer Lee

Simon also noted that Wish includes a lot of nods to the Disney films that came before it: “Against this, the narrative ends up competing with an overt and implicit celebration of Disney heritage. Hat tips to characters and moments from movies past, visual nods, little music cues: Wish isn’t set in a shared universe per se, but it’s very much in a sandbox where it can play to the crowd, which it duly does.”

Perhaps Disney Animation Studios is heading in the same direction as another Disney arm, Marvel Studios?

Kevin Feige’s monstrous Marvel Cinematic Universe has long been (not entirely fairly) criticised for a copy-and-paste house style. Still, only a few have managed to work around it and inject some real colour and style into their MCU films, namely Taika Waititi and James Gunn, the latter of which has now departed to run the rival DC Studios. 

disney wish trailer
Credit: Disney

It’s a safe strategy and I can hardly blame Disney for trying to play it safe. Films are expensive to make after all, but when Wish is placed next to productions such as Across The Spider-Verse and TMNT, the results are stark. The latter films are dynamic and visually interesting, whereas Wish, while solid, seems a little unimaginative. This isn’t to say Wish isn’t gorgeous to look at or a bad film, but it highlights how Disney has slipped into a comfort zone that might now cost it brand identity and perhaps, judging from Wish’s box office results, some cold, hard cash too. 

Read more: Disney 100 | The birthday celebration that’s gone a bit sour

Next year, Disney is releasing Pixar’s Inside Out 2 and Jennifer Lee has confirmed the studio is currently working on ten new animated films. She’s also revealed Frozen 3 and 4 are already in development and a long-awaited sequel to Zootropolis is hopefully still on the horizon for us.

The question is, will Disney keep relying on its safety net of a trusted but somewhat outdated storytelling house style, or will it look at the animation landscape beyond its kingdom and adapt to survive? 

Wish is now in cinemas. 

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