The Walt Disney Company was founded 100 years ago, and while I have had myriad issues with their corporate structure and priorities, particularly over the last decade or so, the one thing I and many others can always look forward to is the latest entry into the Disney Animation Studios canon. Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and continuing unabated to this day, there have certainly been a few low points, but no other sector of the media empire has given us such consistent quality for so long.
As a capper for Disney’s centennial celebration, we now have the 62nd film to join the ranks, Wish. Coming off the disappointment that was Strange World last year, one would think that the House of Mouse would come roaring back, especially since the project was helmed by most of the creative team behind Frozen (Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn directing, Jennifer Lee co-writing along with TV writer Allison Moore in her first feature). Sadly, that was not the case, as the movie finished third at the weekend box office, behind Napoleon and the Hunger Games prequel in its second week.
Even sadder, it’s not hard to see why it lost. As much as we can grant Disney a ton of mulligans for all the good it’s done over the last century, this just isn’t a good movie. It’s clear that the company wanted to honor and homage everything that’s come about since Walt and Roy started the studio in 1923, but in their quest to trigger nostalgia, it also doubled down on a lot of the worst practices they’ve enacted in recent memory, to the point where the film becomes much more of an ironic branding exercise than a genuine moment of appreciation.
The film begins promisingly enough, with the opening of a fairy tale book. This is exactly the type of reference that fans young and old would appreciate, a throwback to the classic template of Disney’s past, reminding us that we’re going to watch a magical story, even if there’s no magic directly involved. It was one of my favorite things about the older movies, because it was a subtle hint that no matter what unfolded on the screen, there’s infinitely more to discover in the printed word and the many more expansive pages of a good book. There we learn of King Magnifico (Chris Pine), who has a stupid name but a great design. After his home was destroyed and his family killed by bandits as a child, he studied for years to become a great sorcerer, eventually gaining the power to grant wishes. Then, with his wife Amaya (Angelique Cabral), he founded the kingdom of Rosas on a remote island in the Mediterranean. Billed as a place where anyone can come and feel safe, the city has become and ideal melting pot society with no structural problems.
So far, so good, right? Well, then we’re introduced to Asha (Ariana DeBose), a 17-year-old tour guide who shows newcomers the wonders of the kingdom through a song that sounds like a straight up copy of “The Family Madrigal” from Encanto, right down to the tempo, expositional lyrics, and attempts at awkward humor. She loves working for the palace, and has an interview for a job assisting the king in his magical laboratory. Literally, she wants to become the sorcerer’s apprentice (wink). She’s also nervous because this particular day is her grandfather Sabino’s (Victor Garber) 100th birthday (wink), and she’d really love it if this were the day that he finally gets his wish granted. See, all citizens of Rosas willingly tell their deepest wish to Magnifico, who manifests it into a glowing blue ball (wink), and every month or so he holds a “Wish Ceremony” where he grants one. This is a momentous occasion, because the act of giving the wish removes it from the memory of the giver, so that if it goes unfulfilled, they truly don’t know what they’re missing. Asha hopes that by landing this job, or at least by doing well in the interview, Magnifico will see fit to grant Sabino’s wish at long last.
At this point, we’re already starting to see red flags. Asha is introduced as yet another Disney princess protagonist (though I guess since she’s a non-royal she’s technically not a princess) who operates without flaws. She’s a little high strung, but that doesn’t really count as a fault. She’s more of a discount Mulan in that respect. Like, imagine Mulan’s tomboyish qualities and mild clumsiness, except boring. She has a dead parent for no other reason but the trope, and a cute little animal companion that follows her around like a sidekick, in this case a baby goat named Valentino. She has lots of friends in the castle kitchen, particularly Dahlia (Jennifer Kumiyama), who bakes cookies of the king’s face because he’s just so handsome. She, like the rest of Asha’s gang, are all analogs of the Seven Dwarfs, with Dahlia standing in for Doc. Like Asha’s job aspirations, this is the sort of reference that starts off clever, but slowly becomes irritating. Then when Asha’s demonstrated the closest thing she’s got to a lack of perfection, she immediately breaks into a huge musical number that rips off a much better film.
Anyway, Asha has her interview with Magnifico, and while it goes really well at first, it quickly ends up pear-shaped. The king is initially impressed with Asha’s desire to help people, so he invites her into his private study, where he keeps the wishes, and they share another song (they come pretty fast and furious during the first half of the film). Before Magnifico can even offer her the job, she finds Sabino’s wish and asks for it to be granted, which is just bad form, as Magnifico notes that usually people in his employ wait a year, or at least a few months, before trying to get favors off him. Still, he looks it over, and sees that Sabino wants to create something artistic and musical that will inspire future generations (wink). He says that it’s beautiful, but too vague, because people can be inspired by anything to do anything, including going to extremes like trying to depose him. He then explains to Asha that while he protects every wish, he’s very careful in considering which ones he’ll grant, only doing so for those that he’s sure will benefit the kingdom. For example, as we’re shown a fair few times, there’s one woman who wants the power of flight. That helps no one, is honestly kind of selfish (because she doesn’t wish for anyone else to gain this ability), and in a society of laws is impractical. But it’s still nice to see such a pretty thought.
But Asha’s not having it. She can’t believe that there are wishes that will never be granted, and she thinks the people deserve their desires, or at minimum to have their wish returned to them if Magnifico is sure he’ll never do it. Magnifico angrily sneers that HE decides what people deserve, and in a final insult to Asha, holds a Wish Ceremony where he singles her out as the inspiration for someone else’s dream coming true, much to Sabino’s sadness.
And this is where the movie loses any chance it had of being real quality. This was an opportunity for a thoughtful, nuanced examination of how the Rosas power dynamic works, and maybe even a meditation on what it means to have such a wish be granted. Magnifico’s response is certainly a dick move, but he comes by it honestly. He’s already experienced tragedy, so he’s much more cautious than your average person. He’s seen the threat that others pose if things get out of hand. He could certainly go about things in a nicer way, but he’s acting on experience and knowledge.
Meanwhile, here’s this teenager who thinks she knows better, based on absolutely nothing, and she’s right only because the script says she has to be. This is a plague that has affected far too many Disney properties of late (particularly the remakes). Heaven forbid we have a female lead who actually learns something from people who have lived far more than she has and gained wisdom from it. No, her only job is to convince everyone else that they’re wrong to doubt or question her, in a movie where this one revelation becomes her motivation to get the entire kingdom to doubt and question someone else. And just to hammer in the cliché, when she’s oh so upset about what’s happened, she sings her princess ballad, “This Wish,” which contains lyrics like, “I know I’m young, but I’m right,” “And so I make this wish to have something more for us than this,” and my personal favorite, “I look up at the stars to guide me, and throw caution to every warning sign.” So, she throws caution to caution, then? That’s just insipid. It’d be like me saying I throw tables to every eating surface. It’s redundant and meaningless at the same time. And as for “something more for us than this,” do you mean something more than a society where all your needs are met and you have no enemies? Yeah, you’re really suffering here. Dumbass.
Even on a meta level, this is absurd. Asha wants to know why Magnifico won’t grant everyone’s wishes. Well, among the many basic reasons of logic, there’s the fact that he’s played by Chris fucking Pine, who saw firsthand in Wonder Woman 1984 what happens when everyone gets what they want. Back then his soul was placed into the body of an unwilling host that Diana used as a sex doll right before everyone’s greed nearly brought about the end of the world. This isn’t authoritarianism, but sound, rational leadership being presented as wrong because it’s in conflict with the doll we’re trying to sell. Again, because Asha’s not allowed to develop, and is already pre-packaged as practically perfect in every way (just wait until the groan-inducing “I’m a Star” number), the movie has to make it so that everyone only wishes for nice, good things so she can be their savior. Even the silly woman who wants to fly is non-threatening in her fantasy. You’re telling me that not one single person has any sinister thought or desire (one that they would then forget when they give the wish, mind you)? Then again I ask, what “something more,” you twit!
And yet, this could have worked. The idea of giving back the wishes that won’t be fulfilled isn’t unreasonable, and Magnifico had to this point shown no signs of hoarding them like they were his “precious.” If Asha wasn’t so petulant, it might be something to consider. At minimum Magnifico could respect her viewpoint while disagreeing, and if she hadn’t immediately tried to call in a favor she hadn’t earned, maybe she’d have gotten the apprentice job so that she could more gradually get him to moderate his views. Or better yet, call his bluff on more diplomatic terms. The movie establishes that once Rosas was constructed and the society firmly put in place, it became tradition for citizens to give Magnifico their wish when they turned 18. Asha isn’t far away from this milestone. She could simply decline to give it as an act of low-key civil disobedience. It’s not a law that they have to give it over, just a practice. Magnifico makes it very clear that every wish is given with consent, so presumably anyone can opt out, to say nothing of the fact that it gives lie to Asha’s bullshit assertion that the wishes don’t belong to him. Uh, yes, they do. You may not agree with it, but everyone gave them to him voluntarily. By the basic definition of words, they belong to him. If he then tries to force it out of you, then he’s exposed as a true villain, and you’re given an actual reason to seek revolution.
So at this point, rather than having a joyous, subtle trip down Disney’s Memory Lane while forging forward with new ideas, we now have a heroine who is completely paint-by-numbers (one of the few plusses for the film is the animation itself, which blends a diluted watercolor scheme with 3D models, giving it a look somewhere in between dimensions, a fitting tribute to the company’s past by acknowledging both major art styles), and who carries on with no regard for the consequences of her actions, as if she knows she’s already pre-programmed to succeed and be justified. All we’re missing are talking animals, a hasty villain turn, and merchandising. Well, guess what’s coming. Asha sings her ill-informed nonsense, and in doing so, inadvertently summons an actual, living, wishing star. You’re probably thinking, Aww, where can I buy one?, to which I answer, probably at the Nintendo store, because no matter what the company says about it being based on unused art from Snow White, it’s a fucking Luma from Mario Bros. It flies around, squeaking and looking alternately adorable and off-putting, and sprinkles magic dust (wink) on things to grant their wishes, including allowing Valentino to talk (Alan Tudyk, who I love, but he’s note-for-note doing his Clayface voice from Harley Quinn). It also grants speech to a bunch of woodland creatures, giving us painful references to Bambi, Thumper, and Little John.
That checks off two of the three remaining boxes for the marketing team, so what about Magnifico’s transition? Well, using forbidden magic, a lot of green smoke, and a book that has an actual picture of Maleficent in it, he goes full-on crazy after Star appears, because he — again, understandably given his past, but the movie isn’t interested in any shades of grey — perceives it as a threat to his rule. At least he gets a genuinely fun baddie song out of the deal, “This is the Thanks I Get?!” It’s by far the best track mostly because it’s the only one that’s even remotely original. It almost makes up for more eye roll-inducing references when he pettily destroys some dreams, like for an island in the sky where you’re young forever (wink) or the perfect nanny (wink).
All of this illustrates the true problem with the film, and that’s the fact that Disney has gotten too big. This is supposed to be a story about chasing dreams and having ambitions realized, but in doing so, the filmmakers — and the company writ large — framed it in a way that highlights their own status as cultural gatekeepers. Only the perfect doll can be right, and she can have no flaws and learn no lessons. The same story is told over and over again, and you as an audience have little recourse, because Disney owns almost everything thanks to years of media acquisitions. They choose whose wishes have value, and any attempt at a reasoned compromise must make you an irredeemable monster. I mean, good Lord!
And in case you think I’m being hyperbolic, I’ll give you one more example from the end of the film. This isn’t a plot spoiler, more a presentation one. During the credits, the margins of the screen are decorated with images of characters — outlined in stars — from the storied history of the studio, and it does so in chronological order, beginning with Snow White herself all the way up to Splat from last year. However, it is not a complete list. Only about 50 of the 61 previous films get a stellar shout-out. Ichabod Crane is the only representative from any of the wartime anthology films of the 1940s, so no Saludos Amigos, Three Cabelleros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, or Melody Time. Now, you may not think that’s too big of a deal, because most wouldn’t associate those projects with the rest of the canon, but the omissions go on. Only one of the theatrical sequels is noted, that being Fantasia 2000, represented by a flamingo, so that’s somehow three chances to feature Donald Duck that go wanting. Finally, The Rescuers, The Black Cauldron, and Meet the Robinsons are also left out.
Really, Disney? Really? When the credit roll started, and I realized what they were doing, I thought to myself that this was a brilliant idea. There’s hardly a better way to cap off the last 100 years than to acknowledge all the films you’ve put out, good and bad, because it shows, in perfect visual form, just how far we’ve come. But no, for reasons known but to our Lord and Savior Michael Eisner, some were deemed worthy of remembrance while others not. I mean, Home on the Range got a place, but not The Rescuers? Are you serious? Talk about controlling the narrative. I mean, hand on the Bible, answer me honestly, Disney. Are you really more ashamed of The Black Cauldron than you are of Chicken Little?
I mean, if you are, that actually explains a LOT, including why this movie pretty much just sucks and will likely be a well-deserved flop. This was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity to celebrate all that came before and leave us with wide-eyed anticipation for all that is to come. Instead, the most successful animation studio in history, the once and future vanguard of the artform, put out the bare minimum, continued force-feeding us tropes we’ve long rejected, and expected to coast on nostalgia alone.
I don’t know who wished for that, but they shouldn’t have had it granted.
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