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‘Wish’ Review: The Sorcerer’s Disgruntled Apprentice

In October, The Walt Disney Company hailed its 100th birthday, marking the centennial of the day the brothers Walt and Roy Disney founded a studio to produce silent one-reel comedies. (Mickey Mouse wouldn’t be born until 1928, so expect another shindig in five years.) As a party favor, the company gives us “Wish,” an amiable, young-skewing trifle that casually retcons Disney’s entire back catalog into a single magical universe. Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, talking mice, autonomous flying scissors, Cinderella’s fairy godmother — heck, even Disneyland’s nightly fireworks — can hereafter trace their roots to this animated prequel set on a Mediterranean island ruled by a silver-pompadoured sorcerer named King Magnifico (the voice of Chris Pine) and his wife, Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral).

Magnifico is a beloved autocrat who protects his people from the pain of failure. Upon their 18th birthday, his citizens hand him their heart’s desire — to travel, to fly, to inspire, each hope represented as an orb bursting from their chest — and wait around for Magnifico to grant their wish. Combine a helicopter parent, a faith healer and a non-F.D.I.C.-insured bank and you get the idea.

The directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, working from a script by Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore, introduce the island as an idyllic, muted-pastel haven. “Hola! Shalom! Salaam!” a guide beams to a boat of tourists. This greeter, 17-year-old Asha (Ariana DeBose), encourages visitors to relocate. Everyone adores this, er, magical kingdom.

Until Asha flubs a job interview with Magnifico and realizes his flaw. The wishers are forced to forget whatever it was they most wanted, which prevents those whose dreams remain unfulfilled — like her mother (Natasha Rothwell) and grandfather (Victor Garber) — from accomplishing them on their own. What to do? The solution is the same as in every Disney cartoon: our heroine runs up a hill, hair swinging, and belts a ballad about longing.

Right on cue, down comes an anthropomorphic star, a character who is both primordial (here, it predates the “When You Wish Upon” lullabye) and patronizingly modern-looking with stubby legs, a cutesy heart-shaped face and mannerisms cribbed from E.T. Compared with the movie’s retro-styled pet goat (Alan Tudyk, the comic relief) and assorted throwback forest animals, the star looks as if it should be hitting the club with some emojis.

Oddly — and rather fascinatingly — this is a film about a spiritual revolution. Can Asha, a humanist, convince the islanders to reject the man in the embroidered robe who preaches that he alone is a conduit for miracles? In “I’m a Star,” a jaunty anthem aimed squarely at theater camps, the songwriters Benjamin Rice and Julia Michaels tout the awesome power of nature (and Disney stock) with this lyrical clunker: “When it comes to the universe, we’re all shareholders.” The standout tune, “Knowing What I Know Now,” is propelled by heavy, marvelous percussion; the rest are earnest and generic, although DeBose’s staccato cadence does its best to puncture the saccharine. Even Magnifico’s peevish number, “This Is the Thanks I Get?!,” is overstuffed with chipper doo-doo-doos and might, to the cynical, sound like a fitting birthday song for the hard-working media conglomerate: “I give and give and give and give,” he huffs. “You’d think they’d all be content.”

Wish
Rated PG for neon-green depictions of black magic. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.

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