Jennifer Lee on Ushering in the Future While Honoring the Past with ‘Wish’

Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Wish is a momentous celebration for many reasons. The 62nd animated musical, which commemorates Disney’s 100th anniversary, centers on the legend of the wishing star while utilizing a hybrid of watercolor styles and CG animation. And Disney animation’s chief creative officer Jennifer Lee wants audiences never to forget that a dream is a wish that your heart makes, and that Wish is an ode to see the greatest possibilities of who we can be.

Visual development art of Asha, Valentino, and Star in the hamlet of the kingdom of Rosas from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Wish” by production designer Lisa Keene, associate production designer Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay, and various other artsits. © 2023 Disney Enterprises Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wish follows Asha (Ariana DeBose), a sharp and witty 17-year-old idealist who cares about the people of the Kingdom of Rosas and learns the dark truth about its ruler, King Magnifico (Chris Pine). In an effort to help those who are near and dear to her heart, she makes a wish upon a shining star. Her plea is then answered by a cosmic force named Star, a star with boundless energy and powerful magic to grant wishes. Together, Asha, Star, and a pajama wearing goat named Valentino venture on a quest to save her community all the while learning that is not enough just to have a dream in your heart. And the bigger the wish, the harder the journey to have it granted is.

The Nerds of Color had a chance to talk to Lee about what makes Wish the right film to honor those animation techniques of the past and present, what makes Disney animated musicals so comforting, and what DeBose brought to the feature.

The Nerds of Color: Disney animated features get more visually striking with every release. But they also build upon their predecessors in terms of storytelling and animation technology. So what exactly made Wish the right film to celebrate the techniques and technologies of the past and present while also leading the way for the future?

Oh, that’s great question. I know, I think in some ways, and I, you know, there have been a lot of really beautiful organic things that have happened on this, that has meant a lot to us. And one of us is we’ve been working on technology for quite some time to really marry the beautiful artistry of the true artists, you know, pen to paper or ink to paper or brush to paper. And bringing that into the new technologies.

Because the new technologies have such depth and give us such opportunities to to deepen the experience and be more immersive. And the idea that we could, in a feature length film, marry the two and create no separation, no translation that gets lost in the process of the artists vision to the screen. And by artists, you know, not just the visionary filmmaker, but the the the artists themselves, the visual artists, that has been a goal.

HOW DID THE WISHING STAR, UPON WHICH SO MANY CHARACTERS WISHED, COME TO BE? — Walt Disney Animation Studios’ original fairytale adventure “Wish” is an all-new story is set in the magical kingdom of Rosas, where Asha, an optimist with a sharp wit and a deep caring for her community, turns to the sky in a moment of need, and makes a wish. Asha’s plea is answered by a cosmic force, a little ball of boundless energy, Star. Together, they will face the most formidable of foes to save her community and prove that when the will of one courageous human connects with the magic of the stars – wondrous things can happen. The voice cast includes Ariana DeBose as Asha and Alan Tudyk as the pajama-wearing goat, Valentino. Featuring original songs by Julia Michaels, “Wish” is helmed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, and produced by Peter Del Vecho and Juan Pablo Reyes. The feature film releases Fall 2023.

The idea that with working through all the technologies we’re working through in the shorts, in this last decade, and particularly, most recently, Far From The Tree, which, which was a watercolor style, we finally felt we could achieve it. And this is the one we were going to do it we were going to fight for it for this one. It’s a huge shout out to the whole team, because we the intent was how do we get that watercolor and, and bring it without any loss, but also almost make it even more immersive. And, and we didn’t know how to do it when we wanted to do it. But they found a way.

I always found that Disney movies can be a place of comfort during chaotic times, and now with the studio being more aware about the importance of representation, I was curious as to how the studio intends to continue that legacy while also being reflective of the world that we live in today?

Yeah, I mean, I think I mean, you said it beautifully, you know, sort of what Disney is for all of us. Disney is a place of belonging, it’s a place of coming together, of community, of hope, possibility wonder, and it’s always, for me, it was a place you want to go to and see the greatest possibilities of who we can be.

I think what I’ve been a part of, since I’ve been there is this wonderful growth in opportunities for all folks around the world and, you know, different cultures, different different genders and, and putting together the most collaborative team. Talent is universal. And access wasn’t always but the efforts to get to find and connect with those artists has been one of the most important things to me. And I will say what it’s done for our studio is I find our storytelling is getting richer, that everyone has different points of view. There’s no one point of view in the studio. People bring such wonderful diverse backgrounds that bring such depth of human experience. And so for me, I feel like when I look at the future, that’s what I see. And I see that’s where our strength of storytelling can come from. And that’s what I’m most excited about.

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.

Ariana DeBose is an amazing actor, singer, and dancer. Given that performing background, did she have any input in how Asha moved or had any influence on some of the dancing in the musical numbers that we will see in Wish?

Well, I mean, she absolutely was critical. I say mostly when it came to the physicality. When you’re with Ariana as a dancer, she exudes like not just her spirit, but it comes through her whole physicality, which is so inviting and warm and open and playful. And, so we really extended that with Asha particularly and everything about how she invites you in. She moves with her whole body, she thinks with her whole body, and that is completely her. But I think on a deeper level, you know, she is a very compassionate, warm person. She’s always aware of those around her. And she’s very considerate about how she makes people feel, and what matters to them. And so when we’re shaping Asha, that in, you know, as you saw, there’s a scene where she struggles to talk to her grandfather and tell him some hard news. That was a big scene for Ariana to talk to how difficult that would be. And that really shaped exactly how we approach that and really helped launch her into the song. And that, for me really opened up a lot with Asha’s character that’s not just the playful side, but the deeper, compassionate side that also recognizes that her own actions have consequences and she can affect people. I think we all have that in life. So she was instrumental to me and for me, especially as a writer.

Wish opens in theaters on November 22, 2023.

(Pictured) Jennifer Lee.