Learn What Goes into Making Walt Disney Animation Studios’ ‘Wish’

Wishing is a common theme for almost all Disney protagonists with dreams of wanting something better. That thematic legacy goes as far back as 1937, when Snow White was first released, with the star element being added later to the iconic Pinocchio song “When You Wish Upon a Star” — a song that became an icon of the company itself and used in the present day openings.

Wish, their newest film, celebrates 100 years of Disney. Generations of art and music come together for their latest combination of 2D watercolor techniques and 3D animation for the studio’s first time, and seven songs written by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice that honor the Disney animated classics of the past with a contemporary sound. Last week, The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists to check out a sneak peek of the forthcoming film and chat with some creative artists who brought it to life.

INTRODUCING ASHA – In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish,” sharp-witted idealist Asha (voice of Ariana DeBose) makes a wish so powerful, it’s answered by a cosmic force—a little ball of boundless energy called Star. Helmed by Oscar®-winning director Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, “Wish” features original songs by Grammy®-nominated singer/songwriter Julia Michaels and Grammy-winning producer/songwriter/musician Benjamin Rice. The epic animated musical opens only in theaters on Nov. 22, 2023. © 2023 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

1. What is Disney’s Wish

In 2018, Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee began discussions with her fellow Frozen co-director Chris Buck on how they could celebrate Disney’s 100th anniversary. “We acknowledged what a privilege and responsibility it is at the significant market time, and we thought what a wonderful way to celebrate a century of storytelling and to tell a joyful original story with original characters and songs inspired by the legacy films,” Lee said. So many of our films are about characters who longed for something greater who, when needing or wanting something more, turn to the night sky and love to dream.”

Lee, who co-wrote the script with Allison Moore, says the all-new animated musical original will be released in theaters only. It’s a significant shift in the post-pandemic era when the few previous Disney animated features hit their exclusive streaming service.

Wish‘s co-director Fawn Veersaunthorn says the film’s “‘Once upon a time’ takes place at the very beginning of the age of European fairy tales in the Middle Ages, long before Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and so many others. And in this story, we come to understand the impact of wishing on a star as we have never seen before.” She added: “The film centers on one core belief that there is no greater power in the universe and someone with a true wish in their heart. We also recognize that often, the bigger the wish you know, the harder the struggle can be to achieve it. The film transports us to that spectacular moment when the will of one courageous human is involved to connect with the magic of the star, creating something truly wondrous.”

2. Assembling The Team

Wish is directed by Oscar®-winning director Chris Buck (Frozen, Frozen 2) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (Raya and the Last Dragon), produced by Peter Del Vecho (Frozen, Frozen 2) and co-produced by Juan Pablo Reyes (Encanto). Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Frozen 2) executive produces—Lee and Allison Moore (Night Sky, Manhunt) are writers on the project. 

Buck comes from the old guard, having directed hits like the Frozen feature, its sequel, and Tarzan before them. He was trained by Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men’s Eric LarsonWish is Veerasunthorn’s first film as a director. Starting as a story artist on Frozen, her storyboard artist credits include Zootopia and Moana and head of story on Raya and the Last Dragon. As one of the younger creative artists on the Disney animation team, Veerasunthorn leads the next generation of filmmakers at the studio.

“You remember the first time you’ve seen a Disney in a movie theater, and for me, that was Beauty and the Beast,” Veerasunthorn said. “And I remember being so blown away by the story, the music, and the beautiful artistry of Disney Animation. It’s what inspired me to want to draw, leading to a childhood dream of working at Disney Animation someday. To me, Disney fans of the early days really captured this sense of a moving illustration.”

“So for me, like Fawn, it was Pinocchio,” Buck said. “I did fall in love with it after, and having animated and directed both hand-drawn films as well as CG. Fawn and I, and the whole team talked about how we can honor the legacy of the studios rooted in the stunning visuals from our earliest films, as well as celebrate the innovations that we’ve made in the last 15 years. That was how we arrived at the wonder of Wish.

Del Vecho serves as senior vice president of production for Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he oversees the production of all feature films for Disney Animation. Having been a part of the award-winning team that brought us Frozen, Del Vecho brings in a wealth of experience and leadership. His other credits include Chicken Little, The Princess and the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, and Raya and the Last Dragon.

As for Pablo Reyes, he’s been with Disney Animation since 2018. Serving as a senior creative development executive, his credits include Encanto and Strange World. He has also worked with the filmmakers to find and develop the stories while also providing cultural support and writing the Art of Strange World and Art of Encanto books.

Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Reyes always wanted to work in the arts and storytelling, and he remembers being influenced by his childhood viewings of such Disney Animation classics as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sleeping Beauty.” After graduating with a BS degree from Tecnologico de Monterey, he worked for several years in corporate engineering and ran a contemporary art magazine before deciding to pursue his dreams in the entertainment industry.

As chief creative officer since 2018, Lee has creative oversight of all films, series, shorts and associated projects from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Her career with the studio started in 2011, where she became the co-writer of 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph. She then wrote and co-directed 2014’s Frozen with Chris Buck. The film went on to be one of the studio’s highest grossing film and won multiple awards including the Academy Award for Best animated feature.

INTRODUCING ASHA – In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish,” Asha is a sharp-witted idealist who treasures her family and community. Her passionate wish is so powerful, it’s answered by a cosmic force that inspires people to pursue their deepest desires. Featuring the voice of Academy Award®-winning actress Ariana DeBose as Asha, “Wish” hits the big screen on Nov. 22, 2023. © 2023 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

3. Old and New School Animation

The short films have always been a place of testing and experimentation for Walt Disney Animation Studios. The innovations of Oscar-winning shorts like Paperman and Feast and the watercolor advances of Far from the Tree would eventually lead to Wish. All three helped inform how the team would achieve the desired look of the upcoming film.

The artistry of the early Disney films also inspired the design team.

Now, it’s one thing to plug in a 2D element into a 3D world. Still, it’s another thing entirely to get this watercolor look in an animated feature like Wish. The beautiful, timeless watercolor style with 3D CGI animation has a look and feel unlike anything Disney Animation Studios has created.

Working with the award winning Frozen production design team — Michael Giaimo, Lisa Keene, and David WormsleyWish is meant to be big because it is intended to be seen on the big screen. Inspired by Sleeping Beauty‘s beautiful artistry and compositions and is one of the prominent legacy films that helped influence the look and feel, Wish is produced at the same 2.55:1 aspect ratio.

As for striking a balance with the animation, it goes far beyond just merging watercolor techniques in a 3D world. Buck recalled when he watched Pinocchio and talked about how Walt Disney was able to strike a tonal balance with the humor and darkness while still being able to bring richness and depth to the feature.

With the deep canvassing that we will see in Wish, Buck talked about his time working on Tarzan, where the artists would make the jungle look like it was painted and had to generate that look on a computer. “So that was extremely difficult to do. But again, we’re pushing the technology, and that all came from us saying, ‘Gosh, it would be great to see Tarzan really moving around the jungle and not being limited like all the live-action Tarzan movies where is a just swings across the frame pretty flat.’

“It’s hard for us to describe it because it took a team of people, artists, technicians, and software writers. We didn’t know how we were going to achieve this look when there weren’t techniques that we had learned from the shorts,” Del Vecho said. “But what we wanted to do on this film, what we wanted to do when a feature film was sort of unknown. That was the fun the crew had. They were doing something we hadn’t done before. And trying to integrate the art direction that the directors and the art director wanted to the film and succeeded.”

“When we develop these films, we develop them with the most beautiful paintings by incredible artists. And then, when you would transfer the CG, there would be a shift. And in the past, when you would also do in hand-drawn, there would be limitations. So one of the goals has been, again, how do we keep making CG more real? Because people can do that? How do we actually get the artist’s vision from the beginning? From that first painting,” Lee said. “So fighting through the technology and getting some of the lines to work is tied to that watercolor. This achievement has meant a lot to us because it’s getting their vision and finally having technology and artistry meet in a way that they’re seeing eye to eye instead of compromising. And I think it’s part of why it’s been so hard because it’s not just about looking at those numbers. It’s about what’s the end result we want, and it’s that sense of art.”

Visual development art of Asha and the kingdom of Rosas from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” by production designers David Womersley and Lisa Keene, and associate production designer Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay. © 2023 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

4. Seven Soaring Songs

Music is a big part of any Disney Animated Musical. As such, the team must bring in an artist who can live up to that long and historic legacy of delivering those timeless earworms, toe-tappers, and songs we can sing while driving. These songs reach out to us in many ways because they speak to who we are, our dreams and wishes, and our vulnerabilities. And to honor the studio’s centennial, they brought in Grammy-award nominated singer and songwriter Julia Michaels and Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, and musician Benjamin Rice to write seven songs.

“Julia is the perfect songwriter for this film, not only because she’s a huge fan and is in love with the classic Disney animation films, but she also brings a contemporary sound to the mix, having written songs for artists like Dua Lipa, Justin Bieber, and Selena Gomez, just to name a few,” Reyes said.

“Julia is the youngest person to ever write all of the songs for Disney’s animated feature film, and her story is inspiring,” Del Vecho said. “Exactly 10 years ago, she was one of the backup vocalists for the Demi Lovato cover of ‘Let It Go’ for the Frozen soundtrack. Here she is exactly a decade later, writing all the songs for our 100th anniversary.”

Hearing DeBose sing for Michaels’ “This Wish” for the first time inspired everyone involved. In fact, they didn’t even have a story in place when the song was written. Michaels crafted the piece you will hear in Wish based on just a few story notes. And having put something out there that conveyed such emotion inspired them. “There’s this girl who didn’t know where to turn, and then she look up at the stars and poured her heart out,” Veerasunthorn said. “And magical things happen.”

Visual development art of King Magnifico’s inner sanctum where the wishes are kept in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” by production designer David Womersley. © 2023 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“We really wanted to talk about that time in life, Sasha’s 17, turning 18, where you have big aspirations, and then the world shows you its flaws. And you go, this isn’t acceptable. And you fight. And you ask yourself, ‘Can you fight,’” Lee said about the themes of “This Wish.” “We all relate to that time in our lives. And that is a part of life. What does that feel like? That moment when you don’t have the answers, but you know something’s wrong. And you know, there should be more, and she just hooked onto that beautifully. And so what I love is the rawness of she doesn’t even know exactly what she’s asking for. She’s looking for help.”

People tease that teenagers only care about themselves. Well, they don’t. They have the courage to ask for a better world. And she is so vulnerable,” Lee said of Asha. “Julia caught all of that and gave back to us something more inspired than what we were even thinking about. And it’s it has been a true north for us the whole time.”

Buck says Michaels’ youth helped formulate much of the songs and that teenage experience of wishing for something more when they see something is clearly wrong. “She understood Asha so well from the very beginning. And so that was great having her as a songwriter,” he said. “She not only has a love for the classics, all the Disney songs, but again, being younger also embraces the more contemporary side too.”

Visual development art of Asha from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” by Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay (Associate Production Designer). © 2023 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“I remember the first time I heard that song, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is my favorite song.’ And she’ll bring in another song, and I’ll be like, ‘I’m just kidding,” Veerasunthorn said. The co-director commented how collaborative Michaels was with the pairing of songs and story and that collaboration was instrumental for the entire film. She joked that they would have 15 notes one day and that Michaels would come up with something very incredible. Lee added that the songs created this beautiful feeling of connection.

“She understood what is really important,” Lee added about Michaels’ involvement. “We wanted to stay closely with the idea that there’s a difference between a film with music and a musical, and how every song drives the story forward, every song is a reveal of character or emotion. And even in being silly, there’s something in it that the heroine to take with them.”

“She [Michaels] went with that so beautifully, and one of the big things for us to do is to try one of these things we’ve never done, and I’m going to tease one song, but I won’t say what it is,” Lee continued. “There is a song that I have always dreamed of having a moment whether the protagonists and villains are aligned in their philosophies because it’s before life really challenges you to – And she and Ben [Rice] have done something incredible about that. And something so universal. And it was just fun because that was this delicious experience of getting to dream about something. And we when you talk about story as a storyteller, you talk about that moment, can there be the moment and rarely can you find it and so and she didn’t just find that she blew us away.

EVERYONE HAS A WISH – In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish,” Asha’s pet goat, Valentino, is among the first to experience the magic of Star, a little ball of boundless energy inadvertently summoned by Asha. Featuring the voices of Academy Award®-winning actress Ariana DeBose as Asha and Alan Tudyk as Valentino, the epic animated musical “Wish” hits the big screen on Nov. 22, 2023. © 2023 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

5. Cast of Characters

It wouldn’t be much of a Disney Animated Musical without a cast of characters voiced by a cast with stellar talent. And Wish is no exception. In this film, the audience follows Asha. Voiced by Academy Award-winner Ariana DeBose, Asha is described as a driven 17-year-old who is incredibly smart, a sharp-witted idealist, and cares endlessly about her community. She is a leader in the making. “Asha learns that it is not enough just to have a dream in your heart. She’ll learn that the bigger Wish, the higher the journey,” Veerasunthorn said.

Alan Tudyk, Disney Animation’s vocal good luck charm, voices Valentino, a confident and opinionated baby goat who wears pajamas and follows Asha wherever she goes. He likes to climb trees, even though he’s not very good at it, and refuses to be discouraged by failure. And once he is become enchanted by Star’s magic, he gains the ability to talk and gives humans a piece of his mind.

Asha’s family also includes her grandfather Sabino, who is turning 100. He will be voiced by Victor Garber (Alias, Happiest Season). Described as being very kind, Asha adores him, but hasn’t had his wish granted. Though he has been patiently waiting, Asha can’t stand that his wish hasn’t been granted yet. Asha’s mother, Sakina, is voiced by Natasha Rothwell (White Lotus, Insecure). She is described as loving and supportive. She also recognizes and celebrates her
daughter’s passion — but, like all mothers, she still worries about her only child, especially as Asha begins to question their king’s motives.

Living in a rustic cabin outside the Kingdom of Rosas, Asha and her late father would sit at a tree and look at the stars in the night sky. He told her that the stars were their guide and that they would always be there for them. Even when sick, he would take her to gaze upon them. So after he passed, Asha threw herself into service for the kingdom. And when we meet her, she is up for the prestigious job of the king’s apprentice.

Visual development art of King Magnifico from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” by Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay (Associate Production Designer). © 2023 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

That king, King Magnifico, is voiced by Chris Pine. He is the famed granter of wishes known worldwide for his incredible power. “Mirrors love his face,” Veerasunthorn said. “And he certainly loves the fact that his subjects adore him, and they swoon over his generosity, his strength, and his perfect hair.” King Magnifico always believed that there was nothing more important than a wish and not just any, which, of course, is the one that drives your heart, the one that makes you who you are. But he also understood how impossible it can be to make that wish come true and how easily dreams can be destroyed.

When creating the song for King Magnifico, Lee and Michaels talked about his arc, where we and the characters get to see the best of him at the start and hopefully survive to see the worst of him. “Julia Michaels was instrumental because ‘This is the Thanks I Get’ started out as an idea, which hilariously is a nod to what most moms to almost put up with,” Lee joked. “For her, she hooked on the idea of a narcissist. So it comes down to the character and the deliciousness and danger. And so, for me, when I write it, that’s how I had to process it from inside out. And the charm of that when tested people would make different choices when tested. And so the playground always comes from character. I think people see different things in different societies. And that’s just because that’s how we live and who we are.”

“What we kept coming back to is at the core of this person who’s the most vulnerable in some ways to these things, and Julie was instrumental in that, but boy that was so fun to do that once we started building it,” Lee added.

So King Magnifico studied magic tirelessly and became a sorcerer to protect the people from the harm and ill will of the wishes that were given to him willingly. But if these wishes were good and worthy, he would grant that wish. And his kingdom was built so that anyone from anywhere would be welcomed. The Kingdom of Rosas’ look is inspired by the Iberian Peninsula.

Lee has had a similar experience writing Frozen with Lisa Keane painting much of the art that would inspire the film’s final look.

Concept art of the Teens from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” by visual development artist Meg Park © 2023 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Then there are The Teens.

Asha’s confidants, protectors and forever friends. They’re also a nod to the Disney legacy. The characters are inspired by iconic the Seven Dwarves, and with each teen costumed in the same color pallete as their respective dwarf with whom they share a fun personality trait or two. Their names even begin with the same letter. There’s Daliha (Jennifer Kumiyama), Simon (Evan Peters), Gabo (Harvey Guillen), Safi (Ramy Youseff), Hal (Niko Vargas), Bazeema (Della Saba), and Dario (Jon Rudnitsky).

Buck said there are so many nods to the classic Disney tropes that it’s hard to put an exact number on how many appear. Some nods were intentional. Some without their notice. So it’s hard not to honor that legacy through these characters. “When it comes to the characters, it’s just just who we are. We grew up on these Disney characters, and we try to do something original,” he said. “But we also know what we grew up with them. We love all those classic movies. So we try to embrace those types of characters.”

Visual development art of Star from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” by art director of characters, Bill Schwab. The artists found inspiration for Star’s facial features from the mask found lining Mickey Mouse’s face. © 2023 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

And just to give you an idea of the deep-cut nods that exist throughout wish, if you look at Star’s heart-shaped face, you may notice a resemblance to a particular mouse. However, don’t expect Star to be voiced by a big star. Buck says the little ball of boundless energy that inspires people to pursue their deepest wishes is much more effective as a pantomime character.

“For me personally, Star is like your inner voice. If you try to suppress that pure energy out of fear, Star is the personification of that drive that drags you along, stares you in the face and pushes you to do the thing you want to do,” Veerasunthorn said.

Walt Disney Animation Studios prides itself on putting the story first before its animation. It’s the same kind of formula that has worked for Pixar. As such, we get a more resonating tale that’s filled with characters we connect with. “A big part of this story, and I think the two characters that are the most critical in that are Star and Asha,” Lee said. The idea of not just you start with the dream but what it takes to make it happen. Walt had to fight through incredible obstacles. And that’s very real and is also just a human with the flaws every human has. And then persevering to bring something forward. And Asha’s wish for more for people to bring joy to happiness through connection, that was very inspiring.”

The thing was Star to me – how I got my head around Star because we did many iterations of Star was Star can’t make this wish happen for you. You have to do it,” Lee said. “What was critical to Walt was you need hope, you need possibility, and it doesn’t hurt to have some wonder, don’t forget some joy, all the things that we grab onto and keep us growing. So it helps us in building Star. This sense of Star always reminds you to keep going and possibility, and yes, it gets to add a little bit of magic. It’s this trying to capture the simplicity of one person’s journey through Asha. But the emotional story of what Walt carried on and built through Star.

“Walt had that initial wish of creating these wondrous stories and trying to get them to everyone and being able to convey that to everyone. And yet he had a team of people, a team of artists, incredible artists, and with any wish we always talked about that — we go against the whole thing about, you know, what the birthdays were, it’s like, blow your candle up with don’t tell anybody to wish you know, I always believed that, ‘no tell everyone your wish, because they can help you” Buck said. “That’s exactly what happened with Walt. That’s what happens with Asha. Asha makes a wish, and Star helps her along the way, along with others, as you’ll see in the rest of the movie, but you know, wishes don’t always happen by themselves. There can be a team that can help you.”

Wish opens in theaters on November 22, 2023.