“A Simple Wish” is an OK kids’ film with a premise that promised a lot more. Sympathetic and agreeable as far as it goes, this next-to-last production from the Bubble Factory under its Universal deal serves up enough incident and amusement to offer kids a decent time and proves reasonably palatable for adults. But lack of truly captivating qualities will limit it to medium B.O. at best.
Scripter Jeff Rothberg’s central idea of a discombobulated, accident-prone male fairy godmother suggests plenty of promise from the opening credits sequence, in which Murray (Martin Short), a foppish middle-aged lad with endless goodwill and no discernible skills, takes a fairy godmother exam in the company of a bunch of old ladies.
Even beyond that, the elements for a good family film fantasy are there: a fairy godmother convention threatened with disruption by an outcast-turned-witch (Kathleen Turner) and an 8-year-old girl, Anabel (Mara Wilson), whose “simple wish” is that her widowed, velvet-voiced father (Robert Pastorelli), a Manhattan hansom cab driver, might win the leading role in the lavish new Broadway musical based on “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Unfortunately, Rothberg and director Michael Ritchie waste more opportunities than they fulfill. Gathering all the nice old biddies in a lavish set for their annual shindig, the film never goes back to it, thereby not mining what would seem to have been considerable comic gold. Pic also has no idea what to do with Turner’s menacing witch or her cranky sidekick (Amanda Plummer), leaving the talented actresses to flail about aimlessly on the dramatic sidelines.
Instead, most of the running time is devoted to Anabel and Murray scurrying about town getting into mild mischief thanks to the broken magic wand with which Murray must make do. One miscue lands the duo in Nebraska, where, in a comic highlight, the ham-fisted godmother manages to transform a shotgun-toting redneck into a King Kong-size rabbi.
In other mishaps, Murray’s busted wand causes green frogs to leap from the mouth of Dad’s main competition for the role of Sydney Carton, which would be advantageous had it not also turned Dad into a bronze Central Park statue, a development that causes some late-in-the-game “suspense” over whether he might be brought back to life.
In short, what the film lacks is a strong dramatic line and a sense of how the characters could interact with anything approaching maximum effectiveness. Individual scenes aren’t bad (except when Short and Turner are overacting), the upscale New York locations are spiffy, and the cast is generally attractive, but the story does not proceed in a purposeful direction designed to satisfy the expectations created at the outset.
One of the film’s most upfront attempts at satire, the musical “Two Cities,” comes off as a little too realistic for comfort. Jonathan Hadary is wonderful as the egocentric composer Lord Richard, and the sight of Carton belting out his “A Far, Far Better Thing” aria while lowering his neck under the guillotine is obviously intended for yucks. But the whole enterprise is so dead-on that it actually looks pretty plausible in this day and age, given the quality of what it is meant to lampoon.
Special effects are a tad threadbare, but just good enough to pass muster with kids, while other craft contributions, including Stephen Hendrickson’s production design, Luke Reichle’s costume design, Ralf Bode’s lensing and Bruce Broughton’s score, are solid.