Sofia the First: Season 4, Episode 18, “The Birthday Wish”

Sofia the First is something of an odd beast on a pop culture level. Since its premiere in 2012, it has gained a fairly large adult following (mainly among young women), but hasn’t gotten much attention for that on most entertainment websites. Whether that’s fair or not is up for debate. Sofia isn’t quite up there with other Disney shows–including Elena of Avalor and The Lion Guard–in terms of quality, but the ace up its sleeve is that it is extremely cute, providing just the right dose of nostalgia for the days of The Disney Afternoon when it’s at its best. For its first two seasons, the series was more or less a consistent charmer, but its become more uneven in terms of tone in more recent years.

Part of the reason for this–and this might sound strange for those unfamiliar with the series–is that its become too ambitious for its own good, creating and changing rules as it goes along before making new ones the following season. Sofia started out as a show about a peasant girl who adjusts to royal life after her mother marries the king, then turned into a saga about a “secret library” in which the unfinished stories of various characters would have to be completed, and most recently has been transformed into…a cop show? Sofia is strongest when its keeping things simple, but it doesn’t quite understand world-building, and the current arc that involves Sofia (who is, yes, in training to be some sort of police officer, even though she’s like 10 or 11 years old) searching for “magical items” belonging to various Disney villains before an escaped convict finds them is just as random and out-of-nowhere as it sounds.

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Thank goodness the 100th episode–titled The Birthday Wish–not only returns Sofia to its roots, but it’s also quite possibly the strongest the series has been in years. There’s an extreme sense of confidence on display here, with some of the smoothest storytelling the show has ever displayed, and some of the strongest jokes, too. Like any good 100th episode, it feels appropriately “special” without making too big a deal over itself. The Birthday Wish is a remarkably relaxed affair, keeping Sofia at home while still placing her in a situation in which she can get incredibly stressed out.

Things begin with an average enough premise: Sofia wakes up on her birthday thinking that everything is going to go great for her because it’s her big day, but what follows in an unusual case of bad luck for her. Her new dress gets stained, her balloons all get popped, her cake is destroyed by her step-brother’s dog, and her present is inexplicably set ablaze by a fire-breathing dragon. Understandably, she is rather bummed out by all of this, and as she blows out her candle while in her mother’s arms she makes a wish that she could have her birthday to live all over again.

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Unfortunately, unbeknownst to her, a bumbling fairy godmother (is there any other kind in Disney?) overhears her wish and decides to grant it…landing Sofia in a Groundhog Day scenario in which she lives the same day over and over and over again. No matter what Sofia does, things keep going wrong: her dress still gets destroyed, her balloons all get burnt to a crisp, and her present never survives. Growing tired of her own birthday, Sofia gets more and more frustrated, and even when she’s able to stop all of the hazards that befall her she’s still trapped living in calendar limbo.

One reason the episode works as well as it does is that it plays by a rule the best of children’s television abides to: it’s great when your lead character is a good role model, but it’s equally important to be able to torture them for a while in the service of laughs and a good lesson. Sofia is normally good to the point of being a little saint (which is why the episode in which she gets an evil twin is another of the show’s most enjoyable), so seeing her behave in a more infuriated way–a more “human” way if you will–makes this story all the more effective and funny. There’s a great running gag in which Sofia’s pet rabbit Clover keeps waking her up with the same overly loud birthday greeting, to which she responds with a louder and more annoyed scream each time. Ariel Winter, who has always been strong as the show’s titular character, gets some of the best material she’s been given to date on the series here, so that by the time things finally do get resolved it feels earned rather than merely inevitable.

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As is usually the case with such tales, no one except Sofia is aware she is experiencing the same party repeatedly, which makes her reactions to her family and friends saying the same things to her endlessly predictably amusing. But there is a pretty solid moral going on here as well, centered around something which even adults can find relatable. We tend to put extreme emotional stock in birthdays, both in terms of anticipation of the occasion, but also in us wanting them to go well so we don’t get overly sad about the fact that we’re aging. As kids, we celebrate getting older as a good thing, but once we become adults the concept of adding another candle to our cakes feels less and less appealing. So when birthdays don’t go well for us, it can be depressing, and we can be at risk of having a tendency of letting the negative aspects of such instances outweigh the good.

Ultimately, the only way Sofia is able to break the spell is if she enjoys her birthday, instead of spending the entire day dwelling on what has and/or can go wrong during it. Granted, the execution of this might be slightly corny–Sofia resolves the matter of her dress being stained by deciding to mess up the whole thing–but it’s a nutritional kind of corny, one which the episode is able to get away with because everything that’s come before it has been so strong. I’m not sure if this is a sign that Sofia the First is making a return to form or not, but it’s about as satisfying as the series has ever been, and one of the reasons the show has made it to 100 episodes.

Other stuff:

* This is Sofia’s 100th episode, but I’ve been told that’s in terms of production order, rather than in order of airing. I haven’t bothered to count to find out which is correct.

The Birthday Wish doesn’t have much of Amber in it, who is probably one of the more amusing characters on the series, a drama queen who is essentially a younger version of Sharpay Evans from the High School Musical films.

* There is also sadly no Cedric in this episode, but there’s also probably no room for him to play a role. As a wannabe bad guy with a heart of gold, the lack of respect he gets from everyone around him except for Sofia makes him one of the show’s most enduring aspects.

* One issue I have with Sofia and other shows of its kind is that it feels the need to place a song in every episode. It would be wise if they took a page from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s playbook and went for quality over quantity.

* Having said that, Sofia has produced its fair share of strong musical numbers, including this one which I apologize in advance for getting stuck in your head…