You’d better believe I’ve been anxious to tear into this one.
I’ve already written at great length about how Disney’s grand centennial year has been terribly botched by one box-office flop and corporate blunder after another. To say nothing of the historic strikes that exposed corruption and greed throughout the whole industry. And through it all, we’ve had the trailers for Wish, a film made and marketed as Disney’s 100th-anniversary victory lap.
I might add that while most of the directors and writers on this project (namely Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Fawn Veerasunthorn) were key Frozen alumni, the music was not handled by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the Oscar-winning husband/wife team who are at least half the reason why Frozen got to be so massive. Instead, the songs were written by Julia Michaels, a moderately successful pop music artist who came up through reality television, working alongside ex-boyfriend JP Saxe. This is not an upgrade.
That said, the score was handled by David Metzger (Representing Corvallis, Go Beavers!), who’s been working on music for Disney in some capacity ever since freaking The Lion King. If Metzger was good enough to help compose and arrange the rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” that opened every Disney movie from 2006 up until 2022, he’s more than qualified for this gig.
(Side note: The one writer/director who wasn’t involved with Frozen in any capacity was co-screenwriter Allison Moore. She’s a television writer who started with “Beauty and the Beast” on CW and “Da Vinci’s Demons” before going on to a whole bunch of mature TV shows I haven’t heard of. How she went from “Manhunt” to Wish, I honestly couldn’t tell you.)
Anyway, the premise begins with King Magnifico, voiced by Chris Pine. He’s an exceptionally powerful sorcerer who developed the ability to store and grant wishes. With this power, he and his wife (Queen Amaya, voiced by Angelique Cabral) went to build their own kingdom on a remote island, building it up as a haven for those who’ve given up on their dreams or found them too hard to accomplish in the outside world.
The deal is that upon arrival — or upon turning 18 — the citizens of Rosas are free to live out their lives in peace and comfort for the low, low price of giving their heart’s most fervent desire to Magnifico. So long as the wishes are safe in his care, the citizens are spared the unfathomable heartbreak of their lifelong dreams getting shattered. The only drawback is that the citizens have no memory of what their wish was. On the one hand, the citizens are giving up a crucial aspect of who and what they are. On the other hand, if there was no chance that a lifelong dream could ever come true and thinking about it only brought shame and regret, would you really want to know what it was?
But then again, the fact remains that these citizens are entrusting a central part of their identity to a powerful monarch whose judgment is placed beyond question. And therein lies the problem.
Enter Asha (Ariana DeBose), a clumsy and well-meaning young woman who seeks to be the sorcerer’s apprentice (GET IT?!) to learn Magnifico’s secrets and maybe grant her aging grandfather’s wish in the bargain. But then Asha asks a few too many questions, prompting Magnifico to reject her from the job with the oath that he will never grant any wish from her family. In turn, Asha goes looking for help to make sure everyone has a chance at getting their wish granted, and help arrives in the form of an actual fallen wishing star. Hilarity ensues.
Where do I even begin with this?
From start to finish, this was clearly intended to be a love letter to Disney. There are a great many jokes and images and callbacks to all throughout the Disney canon — my personal favorite example concerns the seven supporting characters who were explicitly modeled after the Seven Dwarves. Unfortunately, because this is Disney’s big onanistic centennial celebration, anything the least bit subversive or novel is off the table. We’re here for the greatest hits, the nostalgic hallmarks, everything that defines the Disney brand as defined by Disney itself, and nothing but.
Perhaps the most prominent example is baked into the premise itself: The notion that dreams come true. “When You Wish Upon a Star” has been the Walt Disney Company’s anthem since it was first introduced over 80 years ago. Never mind that the song and the sentiment completely overlook all the luck and hard work and everything else that goes into making a dream happen, it’s all about faith, trust, and a little bit of cold hard cash to buy a set of mouse ears and a day pass at Disneyland. There’s a lot of nuance in the sentiment that dreams come true, and the film raises a fascinating philosophical conundrum about whether it’s better to forget about dreams that never came true. But this is a film slavishly devoted to the Disney ideal, so forget all of that and just keep on wishing really hard.
Which brings us to our antagonist. Here we have a tyrant who brutally enforces a monopoly on wishes, choosing which ones to grant or deny. Magnifico doesn’t want anyone to put any work into fulfilling their own wishes without his magic, he doesn’t want anyone questioning his methods or logic, he doesn’t want anyone publishing their own independent works of art or music that could potentially lead to rebellion (That’s not a hypothetical, that’s a huge plot point in the film.), and he slaps his face on everything from massive statues to cookies handed out to everyone in the kingdom.
It takes a special kind of disconnect not to realize that thematically speaking, Magnifico is the analogous stand-in for Disney itself. So it is that when Disney tries to portray downtrodden citizens rising up to take down Magnifico’s cruel tyranny, the film and filmmakers are pathetically and laughably incapable of selling it.
It certainly doesn’t help that Magnifico has no development arc to speak of. He starts the movie as a pompous dickhead and he ends the movie as a two-dimensional supervillain. The movie tries to introduce some leeway on the grounds that he’s corrupted by dark magic, but that’s bullshit. Any child could tell that Magnifico didn’t turn evil because he went to dark magic, he went to dark magic because he turned fucking evil. There is no attempt at redemption, no nuance or doubt in his philosophy, Magnifico simply does what he does because he’s flat fucking evil. This in turn ruins the themes, because there comes a point when Asha and her friends aren’t trying to stop Magnifico because he’s got everyone’s wishes trapped — they’re trying to stop him because he’s gone so far out of control that he needs to be put down for the sake of it.
Speaking of which, what about Asha? Sadly, our protagonist highlights so much of why this movie doesn’t work. She doesn’t have much in the way of personality, or even much in the way of motivation. This is a character so focused on her grandfather’s wish that we never learn what her wish is. I kept waiting for someone to ask or answer the question of what Asha would’ve given Magnifico when she turned 18. By virtue of the premise, and by virtue of how extremely important it is to know about our protagonist’s motivation, overlooking that question was a huge mistake.
Another huge problem is that Asha depends so much on physical comedy. She speaks loudly, her movements are exaggerated, she’s clumsy, she’s neurotic… this is a character who takes up a huge amount of space and she needs to move quickly. This style of animation doesn’t allow for that. I can understand the logic of trying to split the difference between traditional 2D cel-shaded animation and more modern CG animation, but the middle ground they came up with doesn’t fit the tone of the film.
It’s not just Asha, either. We’ve also got the aforementioned wishing star and a talking goat voiced by DAS mainstay Alan Tudyk. These characters never shut the fuck up. Star doesn’t even talk and the character is still noisy as hell. Even and especially when they need to lay low on pain of blowing all their plans, these characters keep on jabbering and making trouble long past the point of wearing out their welcome. I could say the same for the aforementioned not-Dwarves, who only have the color schemes and personality tropes of the original Dwarves without any of the rubbery animation or cartoonish proportions that made them work. Conversely, we have Queen Amaya and Asha’s family, all of whom are one-dimensional characters with cellophane development arcs.
Then we have the songs. Gods above, which examples do I go with? We’ve got “Welcome to Rosas”, with its forced rhymes and too many syllables emphasized incorrectly. We’ve got the de facto single “This Wish”, which sadly has too many lyrics that fall flat on the floor. (“Throw caution to every warning sign,” what the hell is that supposed to mean?) We’ve got “This is the Thanks I Get?!” which doesn’t sound remotely like the villain song it’s supposed to be. I’ll grant that Ariana DeBose is trying her damnedest to sell every lyric and her talent goes a long way, but it’s not enough.
Oh, and on one final note: I was supremely disappointed when “Once Upon A Studio” wasn’t screened before the movie. What the hell?
The bottom line is that Wish is a movie made exclusively of, by, and for the so-called Disney Adults. This is a movie intensely devoted to the ideals and iconography of the Disney brand, to the exclusion of anything new or thoughtful. I can see glimpses of sincerity with regard to the themes of holding on to wishes and how our dreams define us, but those thoughts are drowned out by enough noise and color and empty spectacle and annoying comic relief to fill a goddamn Illumination film. Moreover, it’s hard to take the themes of revolutions and nonconformity seriously when we’re so constantly reminded that this message is coming from the world’s most dominant multimedia force since the Medici Family.
Look, Disney, I know you had to do something like this for your big 100th anniversary. It’s a huge milestone, congratulations. Now that you’ve gotten this out of your system, try harder next time.
Oh, and by the way: This one gets a huge marketing push while The Marvels is left to rot? What the fuck?!