Let’s be real: If you hate all things Disney or are a big ol’ cynic, you’re not going to like the new animated musical “Wish.” So go ahead and move on to another movie review. Perhaps “Killers of the Flower Moon” or “The Holdovers” – both are really good!
OK. Still here? Then you’ll probably find something to love about “Wish” (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters now), a tune-filled, big-hearted storybook fantasy directed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn that’s the most rousingly Disney effort this side of “Frozen.” Even for hardcore fans, “Wish” comes close to overdoing it with the, well, Disney-ness. That’s when Oscar winner Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”) becomes the movie’s saving grace, as a likable, idealistic teen heroine with plucky verve and powerhouse vocals.
The island kingdom of Rosas, in the Mediterranean Sea, is ruled by King Magnifico (Chris Pine), a sorcerer with a tragic backstory who offers sanctuary and protection. In exchange, Magnifico keeps safe each person’s wish – the “best” part of one’s heart – and hosts ceremonies granting them on special occasions.
Asha (DeBose) hopes her grandpa's wish comes true on his 100th birthday. And in addition to working as a tour guide – she helpfully runs down everything you need to know in the flamenco-flavored “Welcome to Rosas” – she has an interview to become Magnifico's apprentice. Rosa’s an awkward bundle of nerves, but she impresses the king, and he shows her the room containing the multitude of wishes, housed in sparkling bubbles. She sees a few, including her grandpa’s, but Magnifico becomes enraged when she inquires about granting it. (He only allows wishes that will help the kingdom, and is pretty much a control freak about the whole thing.)
Crestfallen, Asha ventures out at night and wishes on a star – and while we’ve seen that Disney plot device plenty of times before, at least it sounds excellent in the anthemic “This Wish.” This declaration of her compassionate desire to make life better for her people leads to the arrival of Star, a rambunctious, sparkly little ball of energy. Its power gives voice to a host of animals and living things – including Asha’s newly suave-talking pet goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk) – but also leads the paranoid Magnifico to use forbidden magic to counteract what he perceives as a threat.
At a time when awards-season contenders are beginning to test your bladder’s will to live with lengthy run times, “Wish” clocks in at a tight 95 minutes. But there’s not much character development besides Asha, and Magnifico goes from “he seems cool” to “what a jerk!” in record time.
The original songs by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice are solid. “Welcome to Rosas” is nicely peppy, Pine turns on the snarling smarm for villain song “This Is the Thanks I Get?!” and “This Wish” is the obvious highlight, soon to become a staple on many a little girl’s streaming playlist. The movie’s an effective vehicle for DeBose’s considerable talents: The Broadway veteran imbues Asha with an unmistakable, magnetic warmth and in her own way, she’s as full-throated a force of nature as Idina Menzel’s ice queen Elsa.
“Wish” wraps up Disney’s 100th-anniversary celebration, and it's pulled out all the stops, right up until the not-so-bitter end, with nods to animated classics and characters. (There's a reason why Asha has seven color-coordinated friends.) Most lean clever rather than cheap, and the film always has youngsters in mind, so they’ll likely remember Valentino conducting a Busby Berkeley-style chicken extravaganza rather than Magnifico’s petty authoritarianism.
You also won’t be able to get the strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star” out of your head, since bits of the melody are sprinkled throughout the film. “Wish” entertains and unabashedly owns being a safe paean to old-school Disney, shamelessly aiming for all your nostalgic feels.
And it makes no difference who you are.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Wish' review: Ariana DeBose's Disney musical is not for the haters