“The whole movie, we’re embracing our legacy but also embracing the contemporary,” Wish director Chris Buck said during a press conference on November 10th at Walt Disney Animation Studios. The film isn’t just Disney Animation’s 62nd animated feature but also a love letter to the artists and storytellers who have contributed to the past 100 years of Disney Animation history. With splashes of the past and present, Wish is familiar and new all at the same time. And one of the ways it accomplishes this goal is through its music by Julia Michaels. “We’re so happy and thrilled about the songs,” Chris added about Julia’s fusion of contemporary pop styles with Disney’s theatrical quality.
“I grew up watching Disney films and listening to Disney music,” explained songwriter Julia Michaels, who previously wrote music for Disney Channel projects like Austin & Ally, provided background vocals on Demi Lovato’s end credit version of the Frozen anthem “Let It Go,” and got to put her own stamp on an Alan Menken song in 2018. “Ralph Breaks the Internet really was my in into Disney [Animation],” Julia Michaels revealed. “I had met Tom MacDougall [then EVP of Music for Disney and Pixar Animation] back when he was doing music supervision for Disney [Animation]. I had a meeting with him, and I was like, ‘I’m a Disney nerd, I’m a Disney fan, please let me do something, anything for this company.’ He called me one day for Ralph Breaks the Internet. He was like, ‘We need a reimagination of this song called “Slaughter Race.”’ I was like, ‘Okay, challenge accepted.’” And so, Vanellope Von Schweetz’s “I Want” song (“A Place Called Slaughter Race”) became the end credit bop “In This Place” by Julia Michaels.
“I actually got the call during the pandemic,” continued Julia Michaels about being brought into the loop on Wish. “[Tom] was like, ‘We have our greats, but we want to try something new. It’s the 100th anniversary of Disney Animation. Would you want to try?’ And I was like, ‘Do you know me?’ The first song I wrote for the film was ‘This Wish.’ They gave me a paragraph of the plot, and it was basically about this young woman who lives in a magical town who finds out that the king isn’t all he seems to be. It was all about her selfless journey to get back the wishes for the people of her town. I loved the idea of this very normal, awkward, silly young woman becoming this brave, courageous person. And so ‘This Wish’ was born.”
Creating a film at Disney Animation is a multi-year iterative process famous for its story changes and pivots. Writer and executive producer Jennifer Lee reunites with her Frozen and Frozen 2 co-director Chris Buck on Wish (in addition to serving as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios). Among the big reveals was the fact that the story initially had much less of King Magnifico’s backstory, which created the need for additional songs. “His voice is as buttery as his face,” Julia Michaels joked about Chris Pine, who voices King Magnifico. She wasn’t familiar with his musical chops (he sang in Disney’s big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, dueted with Barbra Streisand on her 2016 album of movie songs Encore, and parodied two Christmas classics on the 2018 album A Very Spidey Christmas). “I had no idea that he could sing, and the first song that we did for Chris Pine was ‘This Is The Thanks I Get?!’ We kept it in this very fun, cool cadence. And then, once I learned that he could sing, I was like, oh, you’re singing ‘At All Cost.’ We’re going for it. He exceeded all of my expectations.”
There are more than 100 nods to past Disney Animation projects in Wish. “My favorite nods all have to do with Magnifico,” Jennifer Lee shared. “Things that went with his character just kept coming to light that were nods to the history of all the magic and a lot of the villains in a way that was like we were building it and didn’t know it. Everything that has to do with Magnifico came with such organic surprise. Like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve been building this the whole time. That ties in, and we didn’t know it.’” Some of the homages are pretty on the nose, like a poison apple that gets some up-close screen time on the table in Magnifico’s lab, while others are more subtle.
Speaking of subtle, Chris Buck had to be shown one of the hidden characters he worked on. “They surprised me one day,” the director revealed. “They said look at this scene, it’s a forest scene. Look closely, look back. I didn’t see anything, and then finally they point. I was the Supervising Animator on Grandmother Willow on Pocahontas.” There, between the trees of the forest of Rosas, was the mentor he helped bring to life in 1995. “We’re not going to tell you where she is, though,” producer Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster Jones affirmed, adding that part of the fun will be viewers finding these things on their own, like discovering a Hidden Mickey at a Disney Park (or in Wish, as there are quite a few). Asked about his favorite Easter Egg, Chris shared that the post-credit tag was a moment he always wanted to find a spot for in the film.
The fate of several characters also ties into other Disney animated classics, including the lead, Asha. One of the biggest challenges was reverse engineering her path to make it feel organic. “There was this moment, I can’t say when, but it happens between Star and Asha that felt exactly right,” shared Jennifer Lee. “Then it was like, ‘We can do it! I can see it!’” Bringing things back to the music, the song “I’m a Star” helped drive home a key theme of the story, which is that everyone has the power to work towards making their own dream come true. “That thing that drives your heart, that passion, as you discover and grow, the thing that is the reason you want to get up every day, it matters,” Jennifer Lee explained. “It may be a hard road, and that’s ok. We think that you wish and then it happens or it shouldn’t happen. Asha shows that it is a journey.”
Behind the scenes, first-time director Fawn Veerasunthorn has had her own journey to make her Disney Animation dream come true. As a Storyboard Artist on Frozen, she worked closely with Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and producer Peter Del Vecho. Prior to becoming a director on Wish, Fawn served as Head of Story on Raya and the Last Dragon. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck both talk about helping Fawn achieve her dream on Wish, which echoes the way Asha finds help in the story. “I get to look back on my journey of having a dream, an impossible dream. Everyone said I was crazy, and it would never come true,” Fawn said during a one-on-one video (viewable at the end of this post). “The journey I took, the ups and downs of it, the appreciation I have of that journey. I was like, ‘I would love to tell that story.’ And I’m so glad that Chris invited me to join this film.” And for Chris Buck, who was a mentee of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men when he joined Disney Animation on The Fox and the Hound, it was a bit of a full circle moment having helped mentor Fawn from the story room on Frozen to sharing the director chair on Wish.
Learn more about the making of Disney’s Wish in our video interview with Writed and Executive Producer Jennifer Lee, directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, and producers Peter Del Vecho and Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster Jones. Plus, I got to step into the same recording studio used by Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Victor Garber, and more of the Wish voice cast to dub over a few of Alan Tudyk’s lines for Valentino!
See Disney’s Wish exclusively in theaters beginning Wednesday, November 22nd.
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