December 6, 2023
BEIJING – The Walt Disney Animation Studios is known for its delightful array of talking animals. This year, as the animation giant celebrates its 100th birthday, its newest animated film, Wish, brings to life a goat dressed in light yellow pajamas.
During an online video interview with China Daily, Jennifer Lee, the chief creative officer of Disney, couldn’t help but smile as she shared fascinating stories about how they conceived the anthropomorphic character, who is called Valentino.
“We often have animals come to us in a very wonderful way. On Frozen, we had a reindeer that came to our studios. And this time, the animators spent quite a bit of time watching baby goats jumping around in pajamas for Wish,” reveals Lee, who is also the co-writer and executive producer of the film.
Screening across the Chinese mainland since Nov 24, the movie’s Mandarin version features Yu Shi, who recently gained popularity for his role in the Golden Rooster best film winner, Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, providing the voice for Valentino. Liu Yifei, famous for her portrayal of the titular character in Disney’s live-action movie Mulan, lends her voice to Asha, Valentino’s owner, a courageous and strong-willed girl.
Set in the fictional and magical kingdom of Rosas, the musical comedy revolves around Asha, a 17-year-old who lives with her family. While attending an audition to work as the assistant to the king, a seemingly generous and kindhearted ruler, the heroine realizes that the king — who can conjure magic to grant wishes for his citizens — actually has a dark secret and dishonorable motives.
The disappointed girl runs into the woods, making a wish that is unexpectedly answered by a cosmic force — a little ball of boundless energy called Star. Together, Asha and Star, along with Valentino and a group of friends, decide to confront the king, and set free all the citizens’ wishes, which are locked in hundreds of magic bubbles.
Lee recalls that the idea for Wish began to take shape in 2018, when she was busy working with Chris Buck while codirecting Frozen 2, one of the world’s highest-grossing animated films. The two-year project involved around 600 animators.
The initial preparations progressed rapidly, from Buck hanging up pictures of all the previous Disney animated films in the hallway to spark inspiration, to conducting deep research into the studio’s legendary founder, Walt Disney, and his childhood on a farm in Marceline, Missouri.
Lee says that most of the scenes relate to a wish, whether it’s a protagonist singing a song to express their desires or literally wishing upon a star, they convey a collective concept — the great power behind a wish is the driving force behind the innovations and changes in our society.
“We should be honoring that. To wish on a star, I think, is a declaration of an aim. But the most important thing is that you do that work yourself, and fulfill your own wish. And, even if the journey is difficult, it’s worth it,” she adds.
As a tribute to Disney’s century-long legacy, the new film combines the traditional hand-drawn aesthetics of watercolor paintings with advanced computer-generated technologies, making all the characters and settings look like a storybook that’s come to life.
According to the movie’s production designers, the distinctively visual style of Wish finds its roots in the studio’s early classics, from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to 1940’s Pinocchio and 1959’s Sleeping Beauty.
Lee, who joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2011 and has served as the chief creative officer since 2018, still clearly remembers the first day she walked into the office.
“I came out of the elevator from the car park, and there was a giant star. Maybe that was symbolic of where we would be going. I walked through the doors, and (statues or pictures of) Winnie the Pooh were everywhere. I had to pause for a minute. I was emotional because it had been a childhood dream to be a part of Disney. I almost couldn’t believe that I was there. And yet, at the same time, I felt like I had come home,” she recalls emotionally.
Over the past decade, she has been credited on a series of blockbusters, from being the writer and director of the Frozen franchise and one of the writers of the Oscar-winning 2016 film Zootopia, to her role as an executive producer of the 2018 Oscar-nominated feature Ralph Breaks the Internet.
When asked about her wish after wrapping up the new film, she replies with a gentle smile: “I really hope that this film gives people hope, helps them reconnect with what drives their heart and their wishes, and makes them feel more possibility. I hope that, in many ways, this film reminds us of all the beautiful ways in which we are connected.”