A decade ago, at a time when both Disney and Pixar’s animation output was not exactly unsuccessful but entirely unmemorable, Frozen became a sticky $1.2bn game-changer, a box office hit that turned into an all-consuming phenomenon. It won Oscars, produced earworms that burrowed (a little too) deep, spawned a $1.45bn sequel, led to a hit Broadway musical and showed Disney how to dust off the contemporarily critiqued princess narrative rather than throw it away completely.
Opening in the same Thanksgiving slot 10 years later, with a script co-written by Frozen’s Jennifer Lee, Wish is a bullishly positioned successor, another self-aware, formula-tweaking Disney Princess narrative with as many radio-friendly power ballads as there are Christmas-timed merchandising opportunities. But Wish feels less like Disney’s new Frozen and more like an off-brand rip-off, aesthetically inferior, hampered by a mostly uninspired and underpowered plot and, most deadeningly, lacking in magic. As grotesque as Disney might still be as one of the most effectively illustrative go-tos for the horrors of mass-market capitalism, it’s impossible not to feel that swell of wonder when the studio logo kicks in. While that feeling might have been more absent in recent films that follow, a lifetime of examples have taught us to naively hope for more of it and despite Wish serving us all of the old-fashioned trimmings, from storybook opener to soaring finale, there remains an absence.
The dizzying potential of a wish has been a recurring theme within the Magic Kingdom since the very beginning and basing a new adventure on that idea, in a new kingdom that is also magic, feels like Disney using its combined back catalogue as a fairytale in itself. It’s therefore a little bit of a stretch to call Wish an original story per se, it’s more a clumsy remix of some age-old ingredients, or given that it’s Disney’s 100th anniversary, a bit of a smug victory lap, studio as IP. Our heroine Asha (voiced by West Side Story Oscar winner and accidental viral icon Ariana DeBose) is left a little stranded by such genesis, her barely etched character defined by little more than an ability to belt out a tune and a tendency to slide into Disney’s more recent trend of adorkability AKA stumbling over words and falling over herself like she’s pre-Oscar Sandra Bullock.
She lives in the Kingdom of Rosas, ruled by King Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine), a sorcerer who has the ability to grant wishes. At the age of 18, residents share their greatest wish with him and it then becomes his property, the wisher losing all memory of what they once wanted. Ceremonies then take place on a regular basis where a wish is picked out and granted. Asha is 17 and gearing up for an interview to be Magnifico’s apprentice, a prized position that she hopes might help her grandfather’s wish get picked as he turns 100. But the closer Asha gets to the king, the more she realises that the system she has been taught to believe in might be hiding something more nefarious.
It’s in these moments of realisation, where Asha starts to question Magnifico’s fascistic rule that the film is most interesting, threatening to border on distinctive. Control is achieved by ensuring citizens have the illusion of hope but dreams are only permitted when they fall within safe boundaries, a wish that could potentially risk the status quo would be therefore denied. But intriguing ideas to briefly noodle on aren’t enough to sustain our interest as the film slides into bog standard formula, an ungainly script repeatedly trying and failing to charm us. Asha is given two sidekicks – a goat that develops a British accent and a Pokemon-looking star, neither cute or funny enough to warrant the inevitable plush toys that will follow – and an absurdly large group of friends, all devoid of wit and charisma, needlessly overstuffing the plot.
The film takes regular music breaks and while DeBose is, of course, a naturally effective singer, the songs are awkward and forgettable, weakly attempting to ape Lin-Manuel Miranda’s frenetic, often fatiguing style and only once, as Pine gets a toe-tapping solo, do we ever feel a glimmer of enchantment. The animation, combining traditional watercolour backgrounds with contemporary computer characters, is a total misstep, too jarring for the world to ever be as immersive as it really should be, wonder disappointingly out of reach.
Wish arrives at a turbulent time for Disney, centenary celebrations dampened by underperforming films and a jumbled overall release strategy, and it’s not the Frozen-level winner that was teased and needed (just last week, in a sign of hair-pulling desperation, Frozen 4 was announced before Frozen 3 has even started production). Watching all the tried-and-tested elements fail to coalesce just makes us nostalgic for the classics instead. Let us all wish Disney can find that magic again.