Disney turns 100 this year. For its centennial, the studio gifted itself with “Wish,” a film that makes so many references — veiled and blatant — to the Disney brand that it descends into utter shamelessness. This fairy tale feels more like a corporate product than a magical event; it’s a limp dissertation on Disney’s motto that, “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”
Did some higher-up demand a movie based on that lyric from Jiminy Cricket’s classic “Pinocchio” song? Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore took the most convoluted, confusing path to get there. Playing the instrumental version of the song over the Disney logo for the past few decades apparently wasn’t enough to hammer the sentiment home.
“Wish” opens with one of those fancy storybooks, the kind that memorably appeared in films during Disney’s heydey (which, in my opinion, is bookended by 1937′s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and 1967′s “The Jungle Book”). Immediately, this image conjures up gorgeous, hand-drawn masterpieces like 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
This old-school throwback soon gives way to the more recent look of Disney films like 2013’s “Frozen.” We’re introduced to the city of Rosas, a place ruled by a benevolent, magical hunk named Magnifico (Chris Pine). It’s not only home to the 17-year old protagonist, Asha (Ariana DeBose), it’s also a tourist attraction. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there on the one day a year Magnifico grants a wish from one of Rosas’s denizens.
Though he has magical powers, Magnifico is no genie. People in Rosas give him their fondest wish, which he yanks out of their chest because, as Cinderella once sang, “a dream is a wish your heart makes.” For safe keeping, Magnifico keeps these wishes in floating blue bubbles within his palace. It’s from here he selects the one wish to be granted.
Asha hopes that this year, her grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber) will be chosen to have his wish granted. Sabino has just turned 100 years old (like Disney itself). Asha applies for Magnifico’s sorcerer’s apprentice job in order to influence his decision. Things don’t go as planned.
But before I get to that, I must tell you what plot detail caused me to write “wait, what the HELL?” in my notebook. When Magnifico removes people’s wish bubbles, they forget they ever made a wish. The rationale is that, without a wish, those people feel much better about their lives.
So, there’s an entire city clamoring, for decades, to have a wish granted that they don’t even recall. It makes no sense. We never even discover the details of Sabino’s wish — we only see him playing guitar while surrounded by adoring fans. Is he wishing to be Taylor Swift?
Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Magnifico’s nice-guy act is fake. He’s really evil, and he has no intention of granting most of those wishes. He just likes having control over everyone. He even has a big, scary book locked away under glass, one that contains all sorts of bad-magic spells. When Asha confronts him about his devious plans, she earns a powerful enemy.
After several Disney films without an actual villain, we finally get an out-and-out baddie. (Don’t believe me? Well, who was the villain in “Frozen?” Or 2021’s “Encanto?” See!) Magnifico looks like a walking thirst trap, and Pine plays him with gusto. He even gets to sing his own villain song, and though he acquits himself nicely, he doesn’t have the impressive vocal talent that DeBose does.
That doesn’t matter, either, because the forgettable songs by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice sound like Lin-Manuel Miranda ripoffs. Say what you want about Miranda and the wordplay that drives his critics batty, but the man knows how to craft a song for and about characters. We don’t talk about Magnifico after hearing these numbers.
Since everything in “Wish” has to be literal, there’s also the embodiment of that star Jiminy told you to wish on; it looks like the star from “Super Mario Bros.” and the yellow Teletubby had a baby. Of course, it’s named Star and Asha wishes upon it, causing it to fall from the sky and wreak all sorts of cutesy havoc, such as making all the animals in Rosas talk.
That development gives Asha the standard-issue talking sidekick, a goat named Valentino (Alan Tudyk). Despite some funny voice work by Tudyk, Valentino is forgettable. Asha’s excellent character design is more memorable than the character itself, though that’s the screenplay’s fault. As in her Oscar-winning turn in “West Side Story,” DeBose does her best and sings her heart out.
To keep myself engaged, I pondered this film’s intent and its meaning. Is Magnifico a stand-in for the Disney corporation? I mean, he’s got his own vault filled with items he threatens to keep hidden forever. Is the city of Rosas Disney World? Why does everyone only have one wish? And when will Disney once again be daring enough to kill off its villains the way it disposed of Ursula, Maleficent, and other evildoers?
Though the visuals are often quite stunning, you’ll wish that “Wish” had a better story. Not even Magnifico is powerful enough to make you forget.
Directed by Chris Buck, Fawn Veerasunthorn. Written by Jennifer Lee, Allison Moore. Starring Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk, Victor Garber. At AMC Boston Common, Alamo Drafthouse Seaport, suburbs. 92 minutes. PG (Magnifico’s antics may scare younger kids)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.