In “Wish Upon” — now available via Redbox and streaming — young Clare (Joey King, from Season 1 of “Fargo”) comes upon an ancient Chinese box that grants seven wishes. She makes a wish, it comes true, and there is a consequence. Repeat six more times until the movie ends.
Written by Barbara Marshall and directed by John R. Leonetti (“Annabelle”), “Wish Upon” has so little substance outside of its basic structure that it’s hard to write enough paragraphs to fill a review. (I’m reviewing the theatrical cut here, because that’s all they had at my local Redboxes, so I suppose it’s possible the unrated director’s cut is better. It’s unlikely to be worse.)
Leonetti’s background is in cinematography, and that’s the highlight of the film: It looks good. In particular, a loft apartment in an old building is striking. And Clare’s dad (Ryan Phillippe) is a junk scavenger, so their house is peppered with ephemera.
It’s certainly a professional, polished film – and at 90 minutes, it’s watchable in the same way a bag of stale chips is edible. It has no subplots, deeper themes or surprise twists. This is essentially a “my first horror movie” for tweens. It’s not scary, but it does have some squirm-worthy “Final Destination”-style gags, like when a neighbor (Sherilyn Fenn) digs into a garbage disposal with her hand as her waist nearly brushes the (unsafely positioned) “on” button. And when Clare wishes her school tormentor would “rot,” there’s a perverse pleasure in seeing what the special effect is like.
It has the ultimate moral lesson that you should – you guessed it – “be careful what you wish for,” along with specific warnings like that against casting a love spell (something “Buffy” covered in more interesting fashion in Season 2’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”).
Clare is nominally corrupted by the lure and power of the wishes, but a viewer feels like that’s only because that’s how the fable is supposed to play out. She doesn’t show much remorse. I suppose kids her age can be prone to self-centeredness, but it also makes it hard to feel sympathy for her. (Also, it’s irritating that she never wishes for unlimited wishes, or invulnerability, or – as one of her friends suggests — a cure for cancer.) The victims of the curses are not well-developed enough for us to care about their fate, so I guess it oddly makes sense that Clare wouldn’t lose sleep either.
In recent years, we’ve seen prequels to “Ouija” and “Annabelle” that were better than the original. Not surprisingly, the magic box survives “Wish Upon” in much better shape than most of its characters, and it could return for a prequel or sequel. That would be an opportunity for a more challenging examination of this material, where the box’s owner weighs the wishes and its accompanying curses in a less superficial manner. That’s my wish for the next one.