Wish review | Disney 100 celebration comes to its big finale

disney wish trailer
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Disney puts on a celebration of its 100-year legacy with its latest animated film, Wish. Here’s our review:

In 2012, just prior to screenings of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney added a short film by the name of Paperman. I’ve included it at the bottom of this review, because this beautiful piece of work is an astounding marriage of where digital animation was at the time, whilst firmly keeping hold of the traditions of hand drawn. It pointed at a slightly different future for the form.

The problem Disney faced was it was a marriage that was incredibly expensive to expand to feature film length. In fact, as it turns out, it’s a union that’s taken over a decade to bring to proper fruition. The result? There are moments in Disney’s Wish, heavily billed as the studio’s centenary film, where the sheer look of is absolutely magical. Familiar, yet wildly different.

The foreground, the computer animation, is as gold standard as you’d expect from Walt Disney Animation Studios. But it’s the details around: the sketches that appear on screen, the 2D, traditional backgrounds. It’s seamless to the point of making me want to buy a ticket for a second viewing, just to look at it.

The film itself? Well, that’s fine, and I appreciate its brazen attempt to get my on side by having someone in it ask for cake within the first five minutes. Lovely.

The premise, then, introduces us to 17-year old Asha, whose grandfather – Sabino – is celebrating his 100th birthday. But, she ponders, will his birthday wish be granted?

That decision is made by King Magnifico, who’s set up an island and built a kingdom on it. A kingdom to which people can sail, make their wishes, and hope they’re granted. Magnifico keeps all the wishes safe, and grants a few each year via wish ceremonies. And I’m already conscious I’m doing a lot of explaining, just as the movie itself has to do.

Wish, to be fair, handles it better than me, with a traditional-feeling Disney storybook opening, and a bit of tightly-written narration. Once things get going, though, we’re on our own, and things starts to get a little more complicated as more factors that I don’t want to spoil are dropped in. I’ll come back to that.

Wish does much right. The central character of Asha, voiced by Ariana DeBose, you can’t help but root for, and DeBose’s voice crackles with personality and life. Furthermore, her early scenes where she applies to become the apprentice for Magnifico – Chris Pine, nice singing voice, too – are a lesson of economy in storytelling. It feels like a scene that does a lot of character work, tells us more about the world, and has bonus test tubes in the background.

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.

The musical numbers also play to the crowd, to the point where after one of them, the film basically stops to take a round of applause. Not surprised either: the musical numbers here are good. Not Frozen or Moana level – tough yardsticks, but good. My favourite being Knowing What We Know Now?. Such is the approach to the songs that it’s no surprise in the end crawl to see an enormous choir listed among the credits. We get some full-on anthems, very much in the Disney tradition.

There’s risk in parts of the film. There’s a willingness in the animation to almost leave thumbprints on the characters. There are dancing chickens. There’s a bit of knitting. There is no shortage of baked products.

What there also is, though, is too much to shoulder, and a lot less risk in the tale itself. The welcome, brisk 93-minute running time accomplishes much, but I didn’t feel it fully got on top of its premise.

There’s a lot to distract you from it, certainly, with a procession of standout sequences. But – not unlike Pixar’s Elemental – when you tap at the world and start asking questions of it, it’s more fragile than it first appears. Just like with Elemental, as the film went on, I found myself tapping at it a little more.

In the film’s favour, I did get to a point where there was much I was enjoying. Yet I wondered what Wish would look like if it was being released in Disney’s 98th year, not its 100th. If you took some of the celebrations out – and boy, the end credits are lovely – what would the film look like?

My guess is you’d get what’s at its heart: the story of an interesting young woman, trying to work out how the world of wishes works, in what often boils down to a two-hander between her and King Magnifico. Mildly muddled, sometimes joyous, with a very welcome butt joke, and a listing in the credits for ‘Chicken Ensemble’.

It’s hard to think, all said, that anyone’s going to feel too shortchanged by Wish, and it can take its place in the midst of the Disney heritage it’s saluting. Not in the front row, but comfortably in the crowd. It does feel though, going back to Paperman, a better visual realisation of what that hinted at than a fully rounded story.

One more thing: I’m interested to see what you all make of the post credits sequence, too: something that, no spoilers, reminded me of the last season of Mad Men.

There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…

Wish is out in UK cinemas from the 24th November.

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