Abigail Jensen (Debby Ryan) has been eagerly awaiting her sixteenth birthday ever since she was a little girl, when she compiled a list of sixteen wishes hoping they would come true by then. Unfortunately, come the fateful day, Abby awakens to discover wasps have infested her house. They spoil her planned birthday party, destroy all her gifts and clothes and leave Abby humiliated as she goes to school in her pyjamas. Just to make things worse, Krista (Karissa Tynes), the spiteful girl next door who shares the same birthday, shows off her shiny new car. For reasons of her own, she seems intent on ensuring Abby is miserable every year.
Disappointment leads Abby to snap at her loving Mom (Kendall Cross), Dad (Patrick Gilmore) and brother Mike (Cainan Wiebe) and hurt the feelings of her besotted best friend Jay (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) when he gives her a thoughtful locket. Then Abby encounters the mysteriously omnipresent Celeste (Anna Mae Routledge), who bestows on her sixteen magical candles, each bearing a number corresponding to a wish on her list. Once lit the candles will grant Abby her wish, though Celeste warns she has no “do-over wishes” and “when midnight comes, this is your life.” Armed with these wish-granting candles, Abby sets out to grab the life she always wanted at sixteen, though of course nothing is ever that simple.
This Disney Channel television movie was a surprise ratings smash in the US. 16 Wishes delivers a tween friendly take on “The Monkey’s Paw” with its timeless warning to be careful what you wish for. Its unexpected popularity amongst twenty to thirty-somethings is likely down to the facility with which screenwriter Annie DeYoung, author of such superior Disney offerings as Princess Protection Programme (2009) and Starstruck (2010), grounds the wish fulfilment fantasy in real teenage anxieties almost everyone can relate to. Abby’s wish list comprises such recognisably juvenile goals as a kiss from her favourite pop star, the chance to decorate her room how she wants, her own shiny red sports car, “the cutest clothes in school” and, naturally, the ultimate All-American high school aim: popularity. But when Abby makes her crucial wish, that people stop treating her like a kid”, she awakens to find herself suddenly twenty-one. Too old for high school but lacking the maturity for college, she is ejected from home by parents who treat her with the same indifference she once held for them, and left to flounder as a jobless, lonely adult.
The film paints a pretty bleak portrait of adulthood as being burdened with bills, worries and responsibilities, but cleverly implies how even without magic this is the course Abby’s life is likely to take, unless she changes her ways. DeYoung develops her ideas far better than such “child in a grownup’s body” fables as 13 Going on 30 (2004) and 17 Again (2009). Unlike many writers, she shows more tolerance of childhood foibles. She sprinkles the story with witty little surreal asides and delivers the moral (that childhood should not be squandered for a quick chance at superficial fantasies) without clubbing us over the head. While it is worrying why the bad girls in these Disney movies are always black, Krista is given more dimension than the norm with a genuine grievance against Abby they settle without recourse to cruelty or excess saccharine.
Peter DeLuise, son of the late comedian Dom DeLuise, directs with brisk efficiency and the necessary lightness of touch. Newcomers Anna Mae Routledge and Jean-Luc Bilodeau standout amidst the appealing supporting cast and the film has a charming lead in the charismatic Debby Ryan. Seemingly tired of playing second fiddle to the Sprouse twins on Disney sitcom The Suite Life on Deck, Ryan rips into her role with relish. 16 Wishes is a fine showcase for her comedic gifts and, as per Disney movie tradition, allows the bubbly star her chance to sing some bouncy pop rock tunes.