With Disney’s centenary celebrations spanning the breadth of 2023 ahead of the studio celebrating its landmark anniversary on October 16, the pressure was on for the entertainment behemoth to create a film befitting the company’s birthday bash.
The end result is Wish, one of 2023's final new movies and a charming modern fairy tale starring Ariana DeBose and Chris Pine as teenage dreamer Asha and King Magnifico, a ruler who becomes crazed with power respectively, in a story that reminds people of the importance of wishing, dreaming, and supporting each other.
Given the expectations a centenary celebration brings, Wish's creative team certainly felt the heat at the creation stage. "There’s no question we felt that pressure of what it was like to be in the studio, in this particular moment in time, and to encapsulate the feeling of a hundred years and bring a brand new fairy tale with new music and new characters," Peter Del Vecho, one of Wish's producers, tells TechRadar. "But once we discovered what the movie was going to be about, it quickly switched to excitement and enjoyment."
Helping to lead development on Disney's newest animated offering were co-directors Chris Buck (who co-helmed Frozen and Frozen II, two of the best Disney Plus movies) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (Raya And The Last Dragon), who said their first job was traversing Disney's extensive back catalog. "We pinned up a still from every single one of our 61 features [Wish is the company’s 62nd offering] under one bulletin board and we could see a common thread there," Buck says. "And that was a character wishing on a star, so it felt like we had to have wishing, and that really felt like the right thing to do once that concept was there."
Once this concept was decided upon, Pine and DeBose were drafted in. It didn't take long for the pair to engage with the film, either, with Pine and DeBose enraptured from the moment the movie's animators started to design their characters.
For DeBose, that meant coming into the studio to interact with a budget version of what would later become her new best friend – i.e. the character of Star, who falls down from the sky when Asha makes a wish. "On our first session with Ariana we tortured her!" jokes Buck. "We had a squishy star-shaped character on a selfie stick with a little smile on it and, as she was doing her acting with the star buzzing all around her, she’s trying to react to it. She probably thought, ‘wow, what am I getting myself into?'"
Pine, meanwhile, wanted to know his motivation for the good-guy-goes-bad Magnifico. "Chris is incredibly smart and incredibly intuitive," Del Vecho reveals. "He asked us a lot of questions – Why is Magnifico the way he is? What’s his back story? How did he come to be? How did this place [the kingdom of Rosas] come to be?
"At one point, we didn’t open the film with him [Magnifico], but we realized that we needed that to not only answer the questions for ourselves, but for the audience. Magnifico’s intentions are actually quite good and noble in the beginning, but then we get to watch that devolve and Chris is able to play it all, and I think he loved it as it was such a juicy role to dig into."
Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster Jones, another of Wish’s producers, added Magnifico was a good representation of a classic Disney villain, albeit one in keeping with present-day controversial figures in the public realm who possess a believable charm. "The story needed someone who was charismatic and had that type of approach," Jones explains. "People in the story willingly give him their wish, so we wouldn’t believe that people would do that if he didn’t have that [charming] side to him."
Another huge consideration – and a massive pull for hardcore Disney fans – is the film's seemingly infinite number of Easter eggs. From a grown-up version of Bambi to the trilling, helpful birds and forest animals of Snow White, there are more than 100 legacy-positioned nods throughout. Given the sheer amount of callbacks, it'll come as no surprise that Wish's filmmakers needed an Excel document to keep track of them all.
"We didn’t have a list to begin with," Veerasunthorn says. "We said 'we’re going to do an original fairy tale story that can stand on its own'. But, as the story went into production, there were artists who were so excited to celebrate the 100 years of Disney, they would be like 'how about [adding] this character?' or 'what if the rabbit thumps?'"
Veerasunthorn managed to sneak in a little Chip, aka the cup from Beauty & The Beast – "Growing up, that film made me want to draw and to get into animation, so I said ‘Hey, I know it’s not essential to the story but could we put it in?'" – while Buck’s work on Pocahontas was honored with Grandmother Willow hidden in one scene in the forest. He also revealed that viewers need to stay put until the credits end to catch his other favorite Easter egg, teasing: "I won’t say what it is but you have to stay until the very end after the credits roll. It’s worth it!"
"It captures that nature of an anthem in such a fun way." 🎶🥁🏰 See the cast and filmmakers of Disney's #Wish talk about the making of "Knowing What I Know Now" and see the movie only in theaters November 22. ✨ pic.twitter.com/XyLetC23DcNovember 17, 2023
Lancaster Jones added that, while not all the callbacks are obvious at first, they were the "icing on the cake", saying: "There are more subtle things, like Star being inspired by the design of Mickey Mouse in the shape of its mask. There’s the green magic that’s evocative of the classic Disney villains, too."
These green-tinged screens also tied in with the movie’s overall look and feel, with the team deciding to marry the old with the new and use a mixture of CG animations with lush watercolor washes.
"We wanted to do something that pays respect to our legacy but also connects with our world today, embracing the technology," says Buck. "So we went back to Snow White and Pinocchio to view those gorgeous color backgrounds that they had. There was always this feeling of a storybook opening, but what we can do with the technology today is that we can go into those beautiful paintings and move all around them, which we’ve never been able to do before. It was really fun taking the audience into the storybook and moving those illustrations."
Other standout moments come from the supporting cast, including Harvey Guillén (Blue Beetle) shining as Asha's wise-cracking mate Gabo. Evan Peters as the mopey and easily corruptible Simon is another highlight, but it’s Alan Tudyk who really brings the – admittedly rather sparse – laughs as Asha’s pet goat Valentino.
Del Vecho says it was a blast working with Tudyk on creating Valentino’s voice, which, as a deep-voiced British man, is the opposite of what you’d expect to come from the animal once Star's magic dust makes him talk. "The most fun [voice development] was with Alan," Del Vecho says. "Just getting in the room and watching him explore different voices, then when he hit that one voice, it was the most surprising and the one we went with."
While Del Vecho and Buck’s focus will now be on Frozen 3 and Frozen 4 – the pair told us that they were “just [at] the beginning of the process” of developing that duo – Buck said he'd love to work on an origin story of Alice in Wonderland's Cheshire Cat. “That would be a wild one,” he added.
Meanwhile, Veerasunthorn believes there's more to explore with Wish, with a Magnifico prequel story at the center of her *ahem* wish list. "This was a character I wanted to know more than was shown on screen, because we only have so much real estate," she adds. "We wanted a villain with an intriguing back story: where did he come from and what happened [to him]?"
It's unclear if Wish's development team will, with or without Magnifico's help, see their wishes granted. Disney's latest animated adventure received mixed reviews from critics ahead of its initial November 22 release – we called it a "starry-eyed Disney movie that shines brightly despite its obvious flaws" – meaning some viewers might hold out for the movie to debut on Disney Plus to see what all the fuss is about.
Others, though, have clearly been intrigued by (and enjoyed) what Wish has to offer – the flick's 80% positive audience score on Rotten Tomatoes proving as much. If Wish enjoys similar word-of-mouth experience to Pixar's 2023 film Elemental, Disney could have another starry-eyed hit on its hands – and wouldn't that, in its centenary year, be a fitting way to round off the festivities?
Wish is out now in theaters across the US and debuts in UK cinemas on November 24.
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Laura Martin is an entertainment journalist who covers TV, film, and music. She's written for numerous big publications, including TechRadar, Esquire, BBC Culture, The Guardian, and The i newspaper. Her favourite stories usually involve prestige TV drama, reality TV, or true-life documentaries. Basically, the more obscure, the better!
- Tom PowerSenior Entertainment Reporter