The power of wishing has been a part of Disney's particular brand magic since the beginning. In 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White made a wish into a well for the one she loves to find her. In Disney's second feature film, Geppetto made the wish upon a star that turned Pinocchio into a real boy. Cinderella learned that a dream is a wish your heart makes, and Tiana wished on the evening star for her dreams to come true.
"Wishing on a star seems so simple," says Jennifer Lee, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. "But to have a wish that drives your heart, what it takes to fulfill your wishes, it's not so simple."
That's the twist behind Wish, which introduces Disney's newest heroine, 17-year-old Asha (voiced by Oscar winner Ariana DeBose), and the magical kingdom of Rosas. Upon turning 18, the people of Rosas relinquish their greatest wish to the handsome and benevolent King Magnifico (Chris Pine), who vows to protect their heart's desire and maybe — just maybe — one day grant it. But when Asha discovers that Magnifico is hoarding wishes in order to fuel his own dark sorcery, she makes a wish upon a star — or Star, as it were — that changes everything.
Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn direct from a script by Lee and co-writer Allison Moore. (Buck, Lee and producer Peter Del Vecho are the Oscar-winning trio behind Frozen; Veerasunthorn previously was head of story on Raya and the Last Dragon.) Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster-Jones produces alongside Del Vecho. "By the way, everybody at the studio wanted to work on this film," Del Vecho says. "Who would not want to work on this film?"
Wish is the studio's 62nd feature, and is arriving exactly one century after Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, launched the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, the small animation house that grew to become The Walt Disney Company as we know it today. As such, the movie is meant to be a celebration of the past and a step into the future. Below, A.frame speaks with the filmmaking team about making Wish come true.
A.frame: What was the origin story of Wish?
Chris Buck (director): The origin story was Jennifer Lee whispering in my ear saying, 'Hey, there's this thing called the 100th anniversary coming up. Do you want to be involved?' Part of me was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't know... That's a lot of pressure,' and the other side was like, 'I have to. I cannot miss this.'
Jennifer Lee (writer/executive producer): Back in 2018, while making Frozen II, Chris Buck and I realized in five years, the studio would be 100, and that a lot of our films take five years. So, we said, 'If we want to do something, we better get started.' We wanted to do something that's an homage but also a completely original fairytale — instead of based on source material. We had big, broad, exciting, fearless ideas, and then the daunting things of, well, now what?
Chris Buck: We pinned up a frame from each of our films on one bulletin board, looking at all the different styles that we'd done over the 100 years, but then seeing the common thread of a character wishing on a star. And I think Walt was there guiding our hands and whispering, 'It's got to be about wishing.'
Fawn Veerasunthorn (director): When I hear about this movie called Wish, I immediately thought about the song, "When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true..." There is so much story to tell in the middle of that, between wishing and your dream coming true.
This movie stands on its own, but it is also very much rooted in the DNA of the 100 years that came before it. What was your approach to striking a balance between that nostalgia and also creating something new and original that brings us into the next 100 years?
Peter Del Vecho (producer): Very early on, we had that very discussion. How do you balance the two? It had to be an original fairy tale, that was a given, with original characters and original song. But how do you evoke everything that we love about Disney Animation?
Jennifer Lee: I really felt we have to write this without anything in mind from the past, without any homage. We have to make it wholly its own. We have to do something different. But it was once we started drawing the movie and all the way through animation where we also said, 'We do want to have fun.' If it pulls us out in a way that hurts the film, we're not going to do it. But if you're in those freer moments in the film, those sillier moments, if it just makes you feel more delighted, we're going to go for it. What I loved is that feeling of sitting in an audience and catching a reference together. That's an important part of our legacy, too. None of us, unless you're over 100, remembers the time before Disney. It's been part of our childhoods and our DNA that we've grown up with and we share it, so getting to not ignore that was also really important to us.
As an example, the riff on Asha's friends being versions of the Seven Dwarves, where in the process does something like that come into play?
Jennifer Lee: That was early on. We wanted her to be a teenager who had a gaggle of friends, but it was daunting at first, because Chris said, 'I was thinking seven.' I was like, 'That's a lot!' And he's like, 'Well, because there are these seven other characters...' So, we made sure we didn't want to do it literally, but we wanted to be inspired. Then each actor brought their own thing to it. So, in some, they're a little more direct; in others, they're a little more nuanced. There were some great ideas, but until I can see how it works through the story, I'm always going, 'We'll see.'
Peter Del Vecho: There are so many reference in this film that you're going to have to watch it several times. Even for us, it's hard to notice them all!
Jennifer Lee: I still see stuff. A little while ago, someone had said there were over 70 references, and I was like, 'Okay, I've probably found 25.' And now someone said there's over 100!
What was the process of perfecting the visual style for this film, of merging the watercolor style of early Disney movies with the cutting-edge style of today?
Fawn Veerasunthorn: We were inspired by the very first films, Snow White and Pinocchio. That's how we arrived at this watercolor storybook style. But on top of that, we want to be able to walk into the set and be immersed in it in the way that we were never able to do before. So, we brought in CG technology techniques that we have to develop specifically for this film.
Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster-Jones (producer): It started with our special development team. Mike Giaimo and his team really studied the artists of Disney's past, like Kay Nielsen, and then they collaborated with our technology team on finding ways to make it look like a moving illustration. So, things like the texturing had to be developed, things like the line work around the characters had to be developed. How do you blend the characters with those watercolor backgrounds?
Peter Del Vecho: We did a lot of tests. We even took a version of Asha and placed her in the Pinocchio background to see if it would fit in that kind of world, to prove that you could have a CG character but also do it in a way with line work that would marry into the environment. That was a proof of concept that worked, and it just kept developing from there.
Asha is an original character, but she also now exists within this continuum of Disney princesses and other female characters. Where do you think she fits in that legacy?
Jennifer Lee: Interestingly, I had spent a lot of time studying fairy tales, particularly as we were going from Frozen to Frozen II, and really loving the old, classic fairy tales and that structure of the ordinary, optimistic hero in extraordinary circumstances. But what makes Asha wholly her own was that she is on the precipice of adulthood in a way where she sees a wrong and decides, 'Am I going to step up and am I going to act on this?' She's at that time in life where I find teenagers are more generous than they get credit for, where they actually want a better world for people. They can see that wrong with a truth and a clarity, and they haven't negotiated it in their minds. And to see her have that awakening in the film and then to see her figure out how to drive her own wish, with all the struggles that come with it, was just such a completely Asha experience.
Chris Buck: What I love about Asha is that, from the beginning of the movie, she doesn't necessarily know that she's a leader. She has the qualities in it, but she doesn't really believe them yet. By the end of the movie, she steps into that leadership quality and it's such a wonderful, beautiful, strong arc for her.
Jennifer Lee: And then, obviously, Ariana DeBose really shaped the character. Asha's very inviting and very warm and very open, and she's comfortable with all her friends and she's gregarious, and all those personality traits were so inspired by Ariana.
Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster-Jones: Something I love that Ariana says is that you actually get to see so many colors of her personality, and a part of that is through the songs. You have a song like "Knowing What I Know Now," which is like her fight song, but then you have her wishing song ["This Wish"] and you have her happy song in the intro ["Welcome to Rosas"]. She's a very complex character that has all of these different qualities to her.
Fawn Veerasunthorn: I loved the day we recorded "Welcome to Rosas." We told Ariana, 'This song is very exuberant, it's joyous. We're welcoming people into this kingdom that they have never seen before.' We said, 'Just pretend you're a Disneyland tour guide, okay?' And she was like, 'All right! My name is Janet.' [Laughs] So, it was like, 'Okay, let's see more, Janet! We want to bring more Janet into this.'
Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice are exciting new voices in mix. She's a prolific songwriter who worked on a song for Ralph Breaks the Internet, but she's never written original songs like this. And Benjamin worked on the music of A Star Is Born. What was it like working with them to craft the songs in the movie?
Jennifer Lee: Julia wrote "This Wish," before I had even written the script. So, "This Wish" became like a true north for me the whole time. What we'd do is we would sit together and go back and forth. And what I loved is — sometimes you can flood a songwriter and give them too many ideas — but with her, she was like a sponge. And then, all of a sudden, she'd go, 'I think I've got something.' And she'd come back with a song where you're like, 'Oh my gosh! It's everything I could have hoped for elevated tenfold, and now I can even write better for the story.' So, she was a dream to work with.
Fawn Veerasunthorn: Julia is such a big Disney fan, so she totally understood what a Disney classic sounds like, you know? But she also brings in this experience of being a contemporary singer-songwriter, and she married those two aspects so beautifully. Many of the songs have this like bop feeling, something you can dance to, very catchy, but then it evokes something very comforting and familiar that has been in all our films of the past.
Jennifer Lee: It's really the power of music, and I learned a lot working with her. Only through song can you truly understand what it feels like when you take someone's wish, their raison d'être, from their hearts. You have it in this little bubble, what a strange little concept! How do we feel that they're literally holding people's hearts and life purposes in their hands? That's where she created the song "At All Costs," where you see your protagonist and your villain aligned in the fact that this is something precious and special that deserves protecting. And she got that. That, for me, did so much storytelling work, because you could feel the wishes.
Was there a song that was toughest to crack?
Jennifer Lee: Oh, I think she'll agree: "I'm a Star," which is such a fun, poppy song, but with complex lyrics in it. The idea that we are made of stardust, that we all are made of the same material, that really inspired it. She was trying to connect in the actual science of material, the chemicals that make up our body, and the aspirational idea that you don't necessarily have to look up at the star and wish upon it. You can wish upon yourself. You're made of the same stuff. She said it took about a month to write, but I remember when it came in, I got emotional.
Chris Buck: The day we recorded that was my favorite. We had a big studio and we had over 20 singers there, and we didn't know who was going to sing what yet. It was like, 'Why don't you try the bear? And you're the mom tree and you're the bunnies,' and then sometimes we'd mix them all up. 'Well, now you try the owl, and you try the squirrel.' It was a wild day and it was so much fun. And I do have to say, personally, my son got to join that, because he's a singer. He's been in the Frozen films; he was a troll and stuff like that. Of course, his last name is Buck, so he plays the buck in this movie.
A Disney Animation movie wouldn't be complete without an adorable sidekick, and this movie has two: Star and Valentino. Where did they come from?
Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster-Jones: Star was a very hard character to crack. Originally, Star spoke and was a shapeshifter and could turn into animals and humans and all sorts of things. We probably had like 200 versions of Star, and that's how we found the simplest version of Star. Jen was a huge part of finding the character too. She told us, 'Star isn't there to give Asha the answers. Star is there to guide. Star is there to give her hope.' That's what stars in the real world do; they're not here to grant you a wish or give you the answers. Asha needed to make the decisions on her own without having a celestial know-it-all tell her what to do.
Chris Buck: We just kept simplifying and simplifying and simplifying until one of our story artists — Dan Abraham, one of the directors of Once Upon a Studio — came up with this incredible design. It's so simple, and it went back to what we're doing with the movie and honoring the legacy: It's a bouncing ball. It's basically Animation 101. The first thing we learn to squash and stretch is a bouncy ball. And then our character designer added the wonderful heart-shaped mask around Star's eyes and mouth, evoking Mickey.
Fawn Veerasunthorn: For Valentino, we looked at animals in the region and had many different choices, but a baby goat in pajamas seemed undeniable. Jennifer Lee loves videos of baby goats in pajamas and keeps sending these videos over. And then we found out our production designer, Lisa Keene, also has goats and she put pajamas on them! So, we're like, 'Wow. The universe is telling us that this baby goat in pajamas has to exist.'
Chris Buck: Then you add Alan Tudyk to the mix. He brought such a funny voice to this character. It's so unexpected.
Wish marks a milestone for Disney. If we were to talk again a hundred years from now, what are your pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams for another century of Disney Animation?
Chris Buck: I know that technology will keep changing and moving and they will keep making things more amazing as we go. My hope is that the heart stays the same, and it's the heart that we were inspired by. It's what Walt did when he started, and that heart and that magic that is in those early Disney films, I hope that still exists another 100 years from now.
Jennifer Lee: What I hope most of all is that we never, ever, ever lose sight of the power of storytelling to connect us. That's how we find our common ground and our truth, and that's how we move forward. At the heart, I just hope that storytelling is alive, and strong, and fresh. I can't wait to see what the next generation does, and if you and I are here for it, well, it looks like we'll have quite a big feisty world. So, I'm excited.
By John Boone