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Disney’s ‘Wish’ honors 100 years with 100+ callbacks

By Tracy Brown, Los Angeles Times
Published: November 25, 2023, 6:04am

When Asha, a vibrant 17-year-old dreamer, discovers the dark truth about her beloved hometown, she’s a bit torn.

So, following in the footsteps of a long line of Disney characters, she looks up at the starry night sky and makes a wish. A plucky star answers and — with a little help from some friends — Asha works out a way to make her wish come true.

Directed by Chris Buck (“Frozen,” “Frozen 2 “) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (“Raya and the Last Dragon “), Walt Disney Animation’s aptly titled “ Wish,” which hit theaters Wednesday is a celebration and culmination of the storied studio’s first 100 years of storytelling.

But as Disney Animation’s chief creative officer Jennifer Lee explains, the new original fairy tale is not just a look backwards at the studio’s legacy.

“One of the things that was always important to Walt (Disney) was this idea of continuing to innovate as storytellers,” said Lee, who wrote the “Wish” screenplay with Allison Moore. “Being able to create something completely original was a nod to the future.”

“Wish’s” origins stretch back to 2018. While working on “ Frozen 2 “ with Buck, Lee floated the idea of making a film timed to the studio’s 100th anniversary to her fellow director. An enthusiastic Buck pulled out stills from each film the studio had made and pinned them onto a bulletin board for inspiration.

“One thing that was clear, there were a lot of characters wishing on stars,” said Buck. “It all started there. We kind of felt like Walt was guiding us to what this movie could be about. And it took a little bit of the weight and the pressure off of it.”

Zeroing in on this motif eventually led the filmmakers to the anniversary film’s core theme: There is no greater power in the universe than someone with a true wish in their heart.

Set in the kingdom of Rosas, on an island off the Iberian Peninsula, “Wish” follows Asha (Ariana DeBose), a teenager who welcomes newcomers with guided (musical) tours touting everything great about the magical city, the community and their king, Magnifico (Chris Pine). The beloved king is a charming showman with the power to grant people’s wishes.

“It was important for us to make her a part of the people of Rosas,” said Veerasunthorn. “She loves where she grew up. She loves her people. She thought that this is the best place to be.”

A firm believer in the beauty and power of wishes, Asha aspires to be King Magnifico’s apprentice. But discovering Magnifico isn’t as benevolent a ruler as he makes himself out to be sets Asha on a journey to figure out just what she’s willing to do in order to make things right.

Besides being a helpful tour guide, Asha is an artist. She carries around a sketchbook filled not only with static drawings but also a bit of animation — complete with a timing chart, which animators use for breaking down the number of drawings a motion will take. (“She’s way ahead of her time,” joked Buck.)

Beyond being a nod to Disney’s artists, Asha’s sketchbook “shows that she’s not afraid to put whatever her dream is on the page,” said Veerasunthorn.

Tribute in many ways

Disney movies have long encouraged audiences to wish and dream, but “Wish” specifically makes the case that wishes are meant to be declared out loud.

“I am a true believer (that) if you have a wish, you (should) tell everyone what that wish is because you’ll get help,” said Buck, who landed an interview at Disney and a spot at Walt Disney-founded CalArts through a friend’s father by being open about his own wish in high school. “You get so many people there saying, ‘Oh, I know somebody’ or ‘I can give you art lessons.’ ”

The first entity to respond to Asha’s wish is Star, described by Lee as a “magical, celestial ball of energy.”

The scene-stealer wasn’t initially conceived as an adorably round, pantomime character. An early idea even centered on having a rock star voice a talking Star. But as she was working on the script, Lee noticed it was too easy to let a star that talks have all the answers.

“Hope, possibility, wonder — those things that Star is really representing — they don’t give you the answers and they don’t do the work for you,” said Lee. “They help you and they give you that drive not to give up … Hope doesn’t do the journey for you. But it’s there when you need it.”

Visually, Buck credits “Once Upon a Studio” director Dan Abraham, one of the story artists on “Wish,” for unlocking Star’s potential. One of his simplest ideas was one that all the filmmakers gravitated towards. Featuring a heart-shaped mask and expressive browline inspired by the iconic Mickey Mouse, Star is a tribute to Disney animation in multiple ways.

Star is “kind of like a bouncing ball,” said Buck. “It’s squash and stretch, which is something we learn from Animation 101,” a basic principle around movement described by early Disney animators.

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“Wish’s” painterly, storybook watercolor aesthetic is also an homage to the studio’s earliest works, including “ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs “ (1937). And the filmmakers note that the last time the studio used “Wish’s” immersive 2.55:1 aspect ratio was for “Sleeping Beauty” (1959).

From its themes and designs to numerous Easter eggs, “Wish” is packed with callbacks to Disney Animation history. The filmmakers estimate there are at least 100 different allusions on their running list — and they’re certain there are some even they don’t know about “because we cannot help ourselves,” said Veerasunthorn, who was also clear that the priority was crafting a movie with a story that could stand on its own. Finding ways to incorporate these nods to the past came after.