Hailing from San Francisco, Wise started drawing at an early age. When he was seven he earned recognition for his artistic ability when he won a Junior Art Champion contest. The drawing even earned him a small paycheck from a company who used the picture for advertising. The experience gave Wise the inspiration he needed to pursue an artistic career path.
By grade five he took a community center course in animation and soon began creating super-8 films. The hobby continued throughout school. After high school, he applied to CalArts and was accepted. During the four years spent studying his craft, he made money drawing caricatures at Universal Studios. In his last year, Disney hired him to do freelance animation.
Following school, Wise focused on making storyboards for stories like The Brave Little Toaster and Amazing Stories. After working on the animation for The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company, he came to realize that his interest in animation lay in the creation of story structure and character development.
This new interest led him to create stories for films like Cranium Command, The Prince and the Pauper and The Rescuers Down Under. By the late '80s, he was given the chance to direct his first feature length film, Beauty and the Beast, with fellow director Gary Trousdale. The film was a great success, even by Disney's standards. It even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (the first for a feature-length animated film). Following the success, he and Trousdale teamed up to direct two more animated films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.