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Disney’s Centenary ‘Wish’ – The Making of a Milestone Movie

Directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, and producers Peter Del Vecho and Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster Jones, dish on the studio’s all-new animated musical about a sharp-witted idealist who makes a wish so powerful that it’s answered by a cosmic force - a little ball of boundless energy called Star, now playing in theaters. 

From Geppetto wishing for his wooden Pinocchio to become a real boy to Tiana looking to the stars as she dreams of owning her own business and Moana seeking heavenly inspiration in her quest to save her island, wishing and dreaming – often involving the stars – has been a quintessential theme in the Disney canon. With the release of Wish, the all-new 3DCG animated musical that premiered on November 22, the creators at Walt Disney Studios have utilized these timeless elements to fashion a truly magical film that is at once an homage to classic Disney films of the past and very much a product of its times.

Directed by Oscar winner Chris Buck (Frozen, Frozen 2) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (Raya and the Last Dragon), and produced by Peter Del Vecho (Frozen, Frozen 2) and Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster Jones (Encanto), Wish introduces the sharp-witted idealist Asha, voiced by Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, who makes a wish on a star so powerful that it’s answered by the star itself – a little ball of boundless energy that she names, appropriately enough, “Star.” Together, Asha and Star confront the formidable ruler of the kingdom of Rosas, King Magnifico, in order to save her community. Through her courageous actions, with a helpful assist from the magic of the stars, wondrous things come to pass.

But, you may ask, how did this other wondrous thing – a film that captures the tone, the visual feel, and the storytelling cadence of a classic Disney film, yet does so with cutting-edge technology and a clear awareness of contemporary cultural mores – come to be?

“We did a ton of research on our own library of films and on Walt Disney himself,” says producer Reyes Lancaster Jones. “We were asking who he was, what inspired him, what kind of leader he was. We even looked into his childhood on the farm in Marceline, Missouri.”

At the same time, it was essential that it be something new.

“The most important thing was we wanted it to be an original story, original fairytale, with original characters and music,” says producer Del Vecho. “It had to evoke everything we love about Disney movies. You want for people who have grown up with them, or have seen them before, to remember that feeling they had when they saw those films. But very, very consciously, we're crafting a new story.”

One way the creators ensured that Wish would appeal not only to those who already love Disney films, but also to younger, contemporary audiences was to fashion characters whose circumstances and desires would resonate with people whose lives might not be the stuff of fairy tales.

“Asha is a very relatable character for young people today,” explains Reyes Lancaster Jones. “She represents all of us in the very human way that she wants to make a wish come true. But she also feels like a young girl from 2023 in that she is willing to go the distance and have the courage to make it happen for herself.”

At least as important as the characters and the themes was the look of the film, which had to evoke the unrivalled artistry and beauty of classic Disney 2D animation, while at the same time taking advantage of the latest CG tools. And, even if the technical challenges could be surmounted, would these more contemporary characters look out of place in a world that recalled a simpler and more innocent time?

“Very early on, our production designer Mike Giaimo wanted to create a watercolor look, a very illustrated look,” recalls Del Vecho. “How to do it was the more complicated part, because we knew what the goal was, we wanted it to feel like a living illustration, living watercolors.”

“Everybody was like, ‘Okay,’” says director Chris Buck, describing the team’s reaction to the  design concept. “And they started thinking about how we could do that and how challenging it would be. Not only that, but then you want to make sure that our characters fit in that world too. You have to create the technology where you still have a hand-drawn look to the characters, but they are CG. It was no small feat.”

Del Vecho continues: “We just took a blind leap, saying, ‘We're not quite sure how we're going to do it, but we're going to figure it out.’ So we did tests. We took Asha and put her into the Pinocchio background, just as a proof of concept. It worked. So that told us that we could treat characters in that kind of environment.”

First-time director Veerasunthorn, who joined the studio in 2011 as a story artist and had her first credit on Buck’s Frozen, goes on to explain that finding the sweet spot for such things as texture required a lot of trial and error.

“We give our artists this technology with which they are able to control the level of texture on both character and backgrounds, and also the line work, where before you might have to do it by hand,” she says. “But to create a pipeline for a 90-plus-minute film, it takes a long time to figure out exactly what is the right amount. Because the computer is going to go for a realistic look and our artists, with their eyes, have to determine what is the right amount.”

“I mean, you are trying to do the opposite of what a computer does well,” Del Vecho adds. “A computer is capable of rendering reality, and what we're asking it to do is actually step back to lose detail. Instead of putting the detail in, we actually want to lose. So there's different detail depending on how far it is from camera. And this film was heavily composited, as opposed to rendered.”

At the heart of Wish – like so many of the Disney features that came before it – is the music. Here, however, perhaps more so than ever before, the music was integrated in such a way that it felt more like an actual musical, as opposed to an animated movie in which characters almost step up to the microphone to sing. Much of the credit for this greater verisimilitude goes to Julia Michaels, who, along with her writing partner Benjamin Rice, created the original songs for Wish.

“Working with Julia Michaels was a dream,” says Del Vecho. “She's steeped in Disney movies because she grew up with them and loved them, but she also has a contemporary flow. But, most importantly, she is a collaborator. So there were lots of conversations back and forth between her and the screenwriters and directors. They were committed to the idea that the song should propel the story, that it should be seamless to go from dialogue into song and back out.”

Reyes Lancaster Jones gave special praise to writers Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Frozen II) and Allison Moore. “I think Jen and Allison, as writers, always gave Julia the right material so that the song is moving the story forward,” he shared. “The song has its place in the storytelling – like, if you take out the song, you don't have the full story.”

“We worked very hard to make the songs feel organic,” adds Buck, who goes on to explain that their goal was to try to move into the songs in such a way that the transition didn’t feel like just a needle drop. “We call it ‘the runway.’ You have to smoothly ease into it so that the audience doesn’t feel like it's jarring. You have to make it feel like they're ramping up emotionally. It's almost like they have no place else to go, but sing it out by the time you get there. It's a tricky deal.”

Buck, who started as an animator and character designer in the 1980s, and whose credits include such timeless classics as The Fox and the Hound, The Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas, is particularly aware of the Disney legacy and what it means to be making an animated movie – especially one called Wish – 100 years after Walt first founded the company.

“I learned so much from my mentors, the Nine Old Men,” he says, referring to the legendary cohort of animators who helped define the studio’s style in the mid-20th century. “Eric Larson was my main mentor, and he not only taught me and my generation how to animate in the Disney style, but he taught us how to think that way, how to think creatively. He handed down Walt's sense of entertainment, his philosophy of entertainment and what that meant, and the heart and the fun. And I hope that I can hand that to the next generation. They handed me the baton in my generation, and now it's my turn to hand the baton over to them.”

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.