Despite being the home of heavy-hitter animated films like Happy Feet and Mary & Max, there’s precious few Australian animated films being produced. There’s a fairly good reason why too: it’s bloody hard for any animation studio in the world to compete with the Pixar’s and Dreamworks’ of the world, especially when saddled with budgets that wouldn’t even cover those companies advertising campaigns. Director Ricard Cussó and writer Peter Ivan (he of Oddball fame) take on the challenge of making something that might be able to compete with those films, with the resulting film being The Wishmas Tree.
A long time ago, the animals of the world were under threat of extinction (shown here as a giant beast that consumes all), and four young critters joined together to wish the extinction away. Flash forward to the sanctuary where predators and prey live in harmony, not eating each other despite how delicious they may appear. Each year, the titular ‘Wishmas’ tree grants each inhabitant one wish by way of special flowers that grow. However, if the last flower is plucked, then the tree will die and the sanctuary will be thrown into turmoil.
Enter Kerry (Miranda Tapsell), a young ring tail possum who has her one wish (to see snow), and can’t help but want another. Sure enough, she takes the last flower and throws her community into turmoil, so with the frill-neck lizard leader, Yarra (Ross Noble), and her sister Petra (Kate Murphy), in tow, they head off to find the sister Wishmas tree and restore order.
Look, first things first, The Wishmas Tree is not perfect. There are clear budgetary constraints that inhibit it from reaching the visual inventiveness that Pixar films regularly set the benchmark for, but if you meet the film on the level it’s operating on, then you’ll have a good time.
For me, I found the bright and naturalistic characters and landscapes exciting and entertaining. It sure is a treat to get to see Australian animals on screen again. The central character designs are pulled from the ‘big eye’ school of characters, making them intentionally endearing and cute, and while that can quite often be twee, it’s employed to create an engaging effect here. The joyfully expressive critters will no doubt entertain the kid market that The Wishmas Tree is angling for, even if some of the late danger-designs might cause a few nervous kids in the audience.
When paired with a voice team that has Miranda Tapsell and Ross Noble in the mix, these characters are dutifully brought to life. It’s interesting that Ross Noble is putting on a voice that hides everything that makes Ross Noble, well, Ross Noble. If you didn’t know it was him, you’d be certain that it was a Barry Humphries-esque figure voicing the creature. It’s an interesting voice choice that I’m not sure entirely works.
On the other hand, Miranda Tapsell’s luminous vocal talent provides most of the films energy, proving that a little Tapsell goes a very long way. It’s clear she’s having a ball voicing Kerry, and the film is better for having her there.
It’s then a shame that the script doesn’t give her and Noble enough to work with. Jokes are effective enough, but are straight from the juvenile joke-book, with your routine poo and zit jokes being rolled out for an easy laugh. And yeah, they do get a cheap laugh, but the surrounding dialogue and narrative struggles to bring life to the film. There’s a reason writers rooms exist, and it’s to help pepper basic plots with vibrancy and energy.
As it is, Peter Ivan’s script (which IMDb credits as having ‘additional writing by Ryan Greaves) is the films biggest let down. The visual inventiveness and spiritedly vocal performances go a long way to accommodating the various weak spots within the script, and it’s here that little ones might start to get a little tired as the film nears the sixty-minute mark.
It doesn’t help that the plot is a little muddled and overstacked. At once, this is a film about the threat of extinction, but then, it’s also about conformity and not rocking the boat, but equally it’s about acceptance and tolerance. By necessity, kids films need simplicity, and as an adult, you should be able to walk away from the film with the clear message in mind so you’re prepared to deal with any oncoming questions that may arise from the kid in your life, but The Wishmas Tree unfortunately doesn’t have that.
However, given the recent bushfire devastation, this is a timely celebration of Australia’s wildlife, recognising the varieties of creatures we have and how important they are to the ecosystem that makes up our landscape. Kids might, understandably, be concerned about the world they see around them, and hearing stories about 1 billion animals killed might raise a lot of concerns in their mind. The Wishmas Tree doesn’t have a solution to this problem, but it does at least recognise that a team effort is required to stave of extinction.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the bonkers side-characters that appear on Kerry’s journey. A blink and you’ll miss it ‘Trash Panda and Bin Chicken’ cop show looks positively hilarious and desperately in need of its own spin-off show/movie. Late in the piece, the mythic drop bears appear like furious ewoks, and for me, their presence brought about many memorably hilarious moments. The horribly disgusting cane toads are also quite entertaining. I just wish that all of these elements featured in the film even more. Maybe we’ll get to see more of these characters in further ‘Tales from Sanctuary City’ fables.
Which brings me back to the budgetary constraints that are placed on many Australian animated films. I’ll gladly admit that maybe I’m more accommodating than others, and that I’m more accepting than most viewers may be, but there is enough spirit and energy that I had a good time watching The Wishmas Tree. I recognise that may not be a ringing endorsement, but I do genuinely hope that more Australian kids stories get told, and additionally, more Australian animated films get made. Just a tip, next time, get a few more voices in to polish up that script.
Director: Ricard Cussó
Voice Cast: Miranda Tapsell, Ross Noble, Kate Murphy
Writers: Peter Ivan, (additional writing by Ryan Greaves)