Since 1985, every animated Disney film (as well as many non-animated ones) has begun with an image of a fairy-tale castle and a shooting star arcing through the sky above it. Often it’s accompanied by a few bars of the melody from the famous opening song from 1940’s Pinocchio, reminding the audience that this studio has long seen itself as being in the wish-granting business.
Disney’s centenary animated feature – in which the central plot development is, well, exactly the event described above – feels like an attempt, after a wobbly decade, to return the brand to first principles. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a self-portrait of an altogether less flattering type – a sort of Corporate Identity Crisis: The Movie.
Wish contains all the ingredients for one of the studio’s signature princess musicals, from hummable songs to a cute animal sidekick, to a lush backdrop of storybook forests and spires. But its back-to-basics approach feels oddly content to stop at the basics – there’s no spark to turn it from a blueprint for a good time into the actual good time you keep hoping is just about to start.
It doesn’t help that the film spends so long chewing on the metaphysics of its premise, which feels like a solid follow-your-dreams allegory that got out of hand. (In brief: a vain and pompous king voiced by Chris Pine has been magically extracting his subjects’ hearts’ desires and squirreling them away in crystal balls, in order to keep the populace subdued.) Nor does it do itself any favours by adopting an unusual digital-watercolour aesthetic, which tries to put a serene Disney spin on the revolutionary hand-drawn/CG fusion style pioneered by the recent Spider-Verse films.
Sometimes – in the ravishing, Eyvind Earle-like forest settings and in zappy effects work, such as sparkles or lightning – there’s a gorgeous, draw-you-in tactility to this previously untested technique. But more often, it renders interiors bland and characters glassy and weightless – ironically, the cast here looks less hand-drawn than the CG natives of Frozen and Moana, who moved with far more of Disney’s trademark whizz and snap. The shortfall may be most glaring in a brief dance number involving some enchanted chickens: funny in theory; antiseptically not-so to watch.
Still, a blast of humanity blows in every time Asha, our 17-year-old heroine, opens her mouth: unsurprisingly, given that she’s voiced by West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose. She makes for a wildly likeable heroine, and just as well too, since her small army of sidekicks are a variable bunch. The cutesy star who beams down one night to help her take on Magnifico is a charmer – albeit a little too reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy’s lumas. But Asha’s seven friends in the castle kitchens – each with a familiar, dwarf-adjacent personality type – play like Grumpy, Doc and co with their ages dialled down and smugness levels right up.
This irksome sestet are the most prominent of the homages to all 61 of Walt Disney Animation’s previous features, which are likely to win Wish extra brownie points from diehards. They range from the subtle and wry to the straightforwardly inane: among the Bambi references, for instance, is the inclusion of a deer called Bambi. But perhaps aside from its pudgy star mascot – over whom, again, one imagines Nintendo might raise an eyebrow – it’s hard to imagine much here prompting grins of recognition in even a few months.
U cert, 95 min. In cinemas from November 24