A Simple Wish

on July 11, 1997 by Wade Major
Efforts to produce a broad-based family film with equal appeal for adults and children fall flat in "A Simple Wish," an almost too simple fantasy that hedges so indecisively between full-blown fantasy and satire that it never fully does justice to either genre.
In the wake of her "Matilda" success, Mara Wilson stars as Anabel, yet another wide-eyed, wonder-struck child in search of a better future; in this case, that consists of soliciting her "fairy godmother" to help her father Oliver ("Michael's" Robert Pastorelli) land a key supporting role in a Broadway musical adaptation of "A Tale of Two Cities." Unfortunately, Anabel's fairy godmother turns out to be a flunkie fella named Murray (Martin Short, last seen in "Mars Attacks!") who, among other initial bungles, inadvertently transforms Oliver into a statue. Making matters worse, Murray has won the wrath of an ex-godmother-turned-witch named Claudia (Kathleen Turner), hell-bent on retrieving her coveted wand, now in Murray's possession.
Had screenwriter Jeff Rothberg and director Michael Ritchie chosen to play this Bubble Factory production as a straightforward fantasy with all the requisite mirth and malice, "A Simple Wish" might have worked as a proper children's film. Instead, the filmmakers trade charm for satire, overloading the narrative with "hip" adult references mostly centering on the "Two Cities" production and its Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque creator, Lord Richard (Jonathan Hadary). Children, of course, won't appreciate the references, and adults are likely to find their inclusion in a film of this sort more curious than amusing.
The split-focus approach seems to take its greatest toll on Short, who plays Murray as a sort of kinder, gentler Danny Kaye rather than investing the character with his own unique brand of frenetic spontaneity. Turner's Claudia fares marginally better yet still lacks the menace to be a truly foreboding villain. Nowhere, however, does the failure to take a dramatic stand exact so great a toll as in the film's photography and production design, both of which are so appallingly dull that even the film's most "magical" moments fall flat. Uneven to substandard optical effects work culled from no fewer than five separate boutique effects houses merely adds insult to injury. But Ritchie and composer Lucy Simon can take credit for their outstandingly moving pair of Broadway-worthy "Two Cities" tunes that, although inappropriate for the tone of this film, suggest that a real musical adaptation of the Dickens work could make better use of their talents. Starring Mara Wilson, Martin Short, Kathleen Turner, Robert Pastorelli and Amanda Plummer. Directed by Michael Ritchie. Written by Jeff Rothberg. Produced by Sid, Bill and Jon Sheinberg. A Universal release. Comedy. Rated PG for mild language. Running time: 90 min
Tags: Mara Wilson, Martin Short, Kathleen Turner, Robert Pastorelli, Amanda Plummer. Directed by Michael Ritchie, Jeff Rothberg, Sid Sheinber, Bill Sheinberg, Jon Sheinberg, A Universal release, Comedy, boutique, photography, fairy godmother

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