The wishing star is a timeless way to make your dreams come true. It is also the source of visually stunning and recurring thematic magic for almost all Walt Disney Animation Studio features, past and present. So, it only makes sense that Disney would be celebrating its centennial anniversary with Wish. The studio’s 62nd film is an all-new original animated musical that honors when you wish upon a star while blending watercolor techniques and contemporary 3D animation to create a unique look 100 years in the making.
Last week, Disney invited us to watch 30 minutes of footage from Wish. What we saw was only a small sample of the entire film. The coloring, lighting, and sound mixing were ongoing. Still, if I were to base what I saw on those 30 minutes, I would have to sum it up in one question: Is it November 22, 2023, yet? The film looks absolutely stunning, and nothing like Disney has ever done before with their feature-length films. While it is meant to be an homage to the classic 2D films, the 3D technology makes it feel fresh and new. The fairy tale-inspired story feels familiar but has the spirit of the world we live in today. And the music feels like an ode to all of those classic Disney animated features of the past, but written and sung through the voices of today who also are ushering in the future.
For those who aren’t fully caught up, the film centers on Asha (Ariana DeBose), a sharp-witted and idealistic 17-year-old living in the kingdom of Rosas, who wishes upon a star when she discovers that her beloved only sightly vain King Magnifico (Chris Pine) has been hiding a secret from his people. She gets more than she bargained for when the star with boundless energy and one-of-a-kind magic that she doesn’t understand at first comes down and joins her on her quest to reveal the truth.
Walt Disney Animation Studio’s legacy is built upon its incredible and breathtaking musicals. Each new one builds upon its predecessors to create something familiar yet ushers in the future of storytelling and animation. Characters convey their emotions and wishes through colorful song and dance. It’s lovely to see how the lyrical compositions reflect the world we live in and can still be timeless. So it seems fitting that Grammy-award nominated songwriter Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice, the latter of whom was also the backup vocals on the chorus for Demi Lovato‘s cover of “Let It Go,” pen seven songs for the forthcoming Wish. The film represents the studio’s future, with the new generation writing contemporary songs while also honoring the past.
And this bridge between two different generations doesn’t just extend to the musical front but also the visual one as well. The animation is striking, blending 2D watercolor styles with contemporary CG technology. It was a long time coming, but also something that Disney has been patiently perfecting through their 2D shorts like Paperman, Feast, and Far From the Tree. It’s as if Disney had been chasing their rivals who utilized the hybridization of animation for years.
Like most of their European fairy tale-inspired features, Wish has elements that feel magical and harken back to those page-turning stories. The fictional Kingdom of Rosas is located in a fantastical land located off the Iberian Peninsula. According to co-director Chris Buck, Wish would have occurred between 1200-1300. Co-director Fawn Veerasunthorn wanted to create a destination where people could go and a place where other cultures converge historically. And they collaborated with their culture consultants to ensure this could happen.
So even though the Wish footage we watched was unfinished, it could still convey all the emotions we expected from a Disney-animated musical. One of the first scenes we watched was a musical number, where our young protagonist, Asha, is working as a tour guide but is also in the running to be King Magnifico’s apprentice. Though she’s a bit tardy, she greets everyone at the kingdom’s front steps with various helloes from different languages. Out of breath, she excitedly says hello, hola, shalom, and other greetings. This ties back to Veerasunthorn’s earlier words about other cultures converging in one place. As Asha sings and dances about the city, we get to see the scope and scale of the kingdom. It’s a place that has a rich history of making wishes come true. The song’s pacing is perfect as it provides a suitable exposition, almost like a love letter to an actual place. Yet, it feels like something you could absolutely dance to. Think of it as “Family Madrigal” but with more of a contemporary energy and classic Disney feel.
The notion that Wish would center on the origins story of a wishing star makes plenty of sense since Disney animated features are built upon characters making a wish on a shooting star or gazing upon them, knowing that a better life through hard work and determination is possible. And since this is the 62nd film celebrating the studio’s centennial anniversary, it’s only fitting that the film has a merging of generational storytelling, music, and animation styles. Indeed, when Disney Animation had been working on their 2D styles, they had been looking for the opportunity to show how far they’ve come. The details are incredibly textured, with the characters looking like they came straight out of an illustrated fairytale.
The film’s second scene sees Asha learning the truth behind King Magnifico’s rule and his ability to grant wishes. Without going into spoilers, we see how the film’s antagonist isn’t a straight-up villain but one with more nuance. Because Disney animated features have built their legacy on characters with true wishes in their hearts, having a villain who controls that power of granting wishes when his people entrust theirs to him is a new and refreshing twist on the idea.
Our third scene is another nod to the classic Disney animated trope of characters making a wish upon a star. The magic comes alive as Asha sits on a tree and looks to the stars for the answers she is looking for when she learns a terrible truth about King Magnifico. The deep canvassing of trees is reminiscent of the jungles in Tarzan, the giant willow in Pocahontas, and the home of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. As she sings, a bright, luminous ray of light shines on her, our introduction to Star. Star is like the bouncing ball from those Disney Sing-A-Longs. It has boundless energy and magic that gives voices to animals like the pajama-wearing goat Valentino or the flora and fauna. Star leaves a trail of light and sparkles, and it looks like someone is making a signature. Even the sound it makes is magical. Again, it’s another one of those callbacks to Disney’s animated films that started with one Wish. Even the talking animals and plants are familiar with Disney’s animated features, and including those tropes is another way to celebrate years of the studio’s works in one film.
The fourth and final clip was the villain song because it wouldn’t be much of a Disney animated musical without one. Avoiding spoilers on what the song is about, the audience follows King Magnifico as he walks through his castle in a fit of anger and frustration. Unhappy at what he has just witnessed, audiences will see his emotions magnified as he walks past various crystals he walks past as well as projected on glass. It’s safe to say that he feels threatened by what happened and could lose his grip on his ruling.
It’s one thing to plug a selected 2D animation style into a 3D film. It’s another to get a specific watercolor look into a feature of this size and scale. As such, it took hundreds of artists dedicated to perfecting the style needed to achieve Buck and Veerasunthorn’s vision. The first look was only a tiny sample of the breathtaking, soaring visuals created when seeing a fairy tale come to life. Yet, the technology it took to bring all this to life feels fresh and alive with a new sense of spirit.
Wish was made to be seen on the biggest screen possible. To achieve that look, they brought in the most incredible production design team – Michael Giaimo, Lisa Keene, and David Wormsley, the same members who worked on Frozen, to achieve that cinematic look and feel. And they wanted Wish to feel significant for the big screen. Sleeping Beauty sets the standard for cinematic animation with its beautiful compositions. It is one of the studio’s legacy films that influenced Wish.
Like the visuals, music is also an important part of Disney animated features, and the studio brought in Michaels, who is a big fan of the classic Disney animated musical and can bring a contemporary sound to the mix, having written songs for artists like Dua Lipa, Justin Bieber, and Selena Gomez. She is the youngest person ever to write all of the songs for a Disney animated musical. And the seven songs paired with Dave Metzger‘s score makes for a lovely tribute to all of the features in the Disney vault, while also standing on its own.
So far, Wish is exactly the perfect film to celebrate Disney’s centennial as it is a fitting tribute to the visuals and music of the past and modern times. There may have been a few tears shed when DeBose sung “This Wish,” and also a few heads swaying side to side in joy with some of the more pop sounds. And you can’t help but get into that evil groove when Pine sings his villain song. While this is Disney’s first time utilizing a hybrid of animation techniques, chasing down other studios who have already used it to great success, it looks like a step in the right direction for them and the visual storytelling medium.
Wish opens in theaters on November 22, 2023.