It was five years ago that Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, the creative minds behind the “Frozen” franchise, began thinking about the kind of story worthy of the Disney centennial. They faced a central question: What is the best way to balance a storied legacy of classic art with the state of the art?
The filmmakers were soon guiding a project that explored a “watercolor, storybook CG-visual style” — one that combined some of Disney’s oldest visual signatures with techniques developed in more experimental animated shorts, says Lee, the Oscar-winning chief creative officer at Disney Animation.
Simultaneously, the writers sought a narrative that could pop with originality while nodding to the nostalgic types of fairy tales that Disney has been spinning since nearly its founding.
The result, an animated musical titled “Wish,” opens Wednesday in the long “holiday weekend” tradition of such recent Thanksgiving releases as 2019’s “Frozen II,” 2018’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and 2017’s “Coco.” (Disney has the six biggest five-day Thanksgiving domestic debuts ever, not adjusting for inflation.)
“Wish” introduces Disney’s latest Not-Officially-a-Princess heroine, Asha, who must stand up to a malevolent royal with the help of an empowering magical star. The story is new, but it toys with many expected Mouse House tropes, weaving in more than 100 nods to the studio’s vault of classic cartoon tales, including “Peter Pan,” “Bambi” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (there’s even a character named Sleepy).
The musical features the voices of Ariana DeBose as young, spirited Asha, and Chris Pine as the scheming King Magnifico, the wizardly keeper of his community’s wishes.
“We build from character out, always,” says Lee, emphasizing that the creative process does not follow a build-by-trope formula. “It has to start with making sure we are telling a compelling story with engaging characters. … The story had to completely stand on its own two feet.
“Once we felt we had the story clear,” she notes, “then we, and our artists, started layering in some of those nods to our legacy.”
Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn directed “Wish,” and they, along with Lee — who are among six credited main writers — say they grew up as “Disney kids.”
In Thailand, “I grew up with the ’90s Disney musical films,” Veerasunthorn says. Seeing “Beauty and the Beast” in the theater “inspired me to want to draw, which made me have this wish to work at Disney Animation someday and be on a project.”
For Buck, it was a theatrical rerelease of “Pinocchio” when he was around 4 or 5 years old.
And the film Lee “carried with me — that was there for me when I needed it the most, especially when I was bullied in middle school,” she says, “was ‘Cinderella.’ Her perseverance and ability to stay true to herself, despite her harsh treatment, was so encouraging to me.”
The team matched this almost intuitive understanding of Disney narrative with a desire to find fresh ideas within traditional wish-driven tales.
“We really wanted to make sure we were doing a sincere fairy tale,” says Lee — a film that, as with “Frozen,” “flipped a lot of tropes but was also not a parody.” (The true love in “Frozen” wasn’t centered on a handsome prince and romantic love, she notes, as much as the power of familial love.)
The filmmakers leaned into some tropes while subverting others.
One such challenge was how to write a villain who feels unique when set against a long lineup of the studio’s vintage baddies. “In Magnifico, as much as we wanted to create a classic Disney villain, we also wanted the audience to experience his backstory more than some previous villains — to understand his philosophy as well as what drives him, understand why at the beginning of our story, Asha and the citizens of Rosas genuinely adore him and believe in him,” Lee says. “I love that we are with him for every decision he makes as he’s tested, and get to be a part of his descent.”
The “Wish” filmmakers also purposefully wrote Asha as an “ordinary” non-Princess hero: “I think that having her not be royal in this case was critical to the story,” Lee says.
Crucial to such a large-scale balancing act was how to create a visual aesthetic that blends the look and intimacy of early Disney brushstrokes with the intricacy made possible by computer-generated animation.
Lee says “Wish” combined the feel of vintage cinematic watercolors with modern technology with a main goal: “No loss in translation.”
“As Walt himself said: Always innovate, and always keep evolving as storytellers.”