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Disney’s “Wish” is the most aggressive piece of Disney propaganda in years. Sure, they all are to a certain extent, but films like “The Lion King” or even “Encanto” stand on their own as stories, whereas “Wish” feels more closely tied to the history of the Mouse House and the power of imagination that fans have found in it than anything the company has ever produced. It’s not just the abundant references to everything from “Peter Pan” to “Mary Poppins” to “Bambi” and beyond, but the sense that the entire production is about how we really need to keep wishing on not just stars, but Disney-branded ones, to make ourselves happy. There’s also a reading of a film about a political leader that crushes the dreams of Disney adults that made me think of Ron DeSantis (and even a little Joseph McCarthy), but that’s a different piece.
So where does all this very intentional Disney magic get us? Not as far as when the creators behind Disney films allow the magic to come organically from its characters. I feel like anyone with an annual pass to one of the parks will flip for a movie that my 12-year-old correctly noted was basically a commercial for the Disney 100 anniversary event still unfolding, but there’s still a sense that this is all not just manufactured magic but hollow magic, too. A couple of very strong musical numbers ultimately get “Wish” off the ground after a rocky opening act, but the biggest problem here is that the film ends up being something true magic can never be: forgettable.
Set in an undefined era—although the creators have argued this is the origin for the “wishing star” of Disney fame so a long time ago—“Wish” unfolds in a place called Rosas, a setting that is woefully undefined despite the attractive animation that blends CGI dimension with techniques that look more hand-drawn. Asha (Oscar winner Ariana DeBose of “West Side Story”) is a 17-year-old about to interview for an apprenticeship with the beloved King Magnifico (Chris Pine). The King is the keeper of magic in Rosas, a man who can extract the wishes of his flock, keeping them in a chamber high above the city, and choosing one wish in a ceremony to allow to come true. Asha hopes that her 100-year-old grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber) will finally have his wish granted, but she discovers that Magnifico isn’t, well, magnificent. He’s more of a hoarder of wishes than a granter, and the most interesting thematic aspect of “Wish” is about how people who promise the world can be manipulative in the fulfillment of those promises.
Of course, Asha isn’t just an ordinary girl who learns about the absolute corruption of absolute power—she becomes a magical figure herself when a wishing star grants her abilities that turn her into a leader for her people. Asha literally wishes on a Star, and said Star comes down to cause chaos and help Asha start a revolution. The first major sequence with the silent Star—a clever choice that feels like something out of Studio Ghibli instead of the typically anthropomorphic exaggerated style of Disney—is a standout as woodland creatures come to life not to assist Asha but to empower her. The idea is that wishes shouldn’t be co-opted by others—they should be what drive us to love, laugh, and live. And when Asha realizes the star is within her, she can overcome evil. A goat voiced by Alan Tudyk helps.
The songs by Dave Metzger, Julia Michaels, and Benjamin Rice likely won’t produce a hit on the level of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” but there are a couple of numbers that work thanks to clever musical composition and thematic thrust. The empowerment song in the woods after finding the wishing star is a bit muddled in storytelling—is she the magical star, or has she been gifted something?—but it’s playful and engaging in a way the movie is too rarely allowed to be. The film also gets a needed boost near the end from another group number in which Asha’s allies sing about what they know now. I could see both of these being a part of a Magic Kingdom stage show before Christmas.
And that probably-planned stage show is at the root of the overall problem with “Wish”—it's all so heavily processed, almost like an A.I. version of a Disney animated movie designed to make not more wishes but more sellable items and experiences. Yes, the machine that is Disney has felt increasingly manufactured in the 2020s—and the truth is that when they go off-book with projects like “Strange World,” the families don’t show up—but this one has an almost cynical cash grab air to it. Magnifico’s evil color palette is green, as if the creators are portraying not just politicians but money-focused leaders as the enemy, which is rich coming from a company that is more of an industry than an artistic venture lately.
And that’s what’s disheartening about “Wish.” I’m old enough to have seen several cycles of Disney success and failure—old enough to remember when “The Little Mermaid” was a comeback for the company—and so I’ve seen how the animated canon for this industry giant has shifted and changed. The good stuff comes from within artistic ventures, not from focus-grouped nostalgia. I also love the joy in my kids when they see a Disney movie that really moves them—for the record, my youngest (10) dug this one, my middle (12) was mixed, and my eldest (14) said he almost forgot it before he got home—but the best animated films will always come from a less hollow place than “Wish.” This wish feels like it didn’t fall from the sky but was crafted by a producers' room with an eye for the highest profit margin. It leaves one wishing for something that feels human and true.
In theaters on Wednesday, November 22nd.
Ariana DeBose as Asha (voice)
Chris Pine as Magnifico (voice)
Alan Tudyk as Valentino (voice)
Angelique Cabral as Amaya (voice)
Victor Garber as Sabino (voice)
Natasha Rothwell as Sakina (voice)
Jennifer Kumiyama as Dahlia (voice)
Harvey Guillén as Gabo (voice)
Niko Vargas as Hal (voice)
Ramy Youssef as Safi (voice)
Evan Peters as Simon (voice)
Jon Rudnitsky as Dario (voice)
Della Saba as Bazeema (voice)