How is it possible to make scores of animated movies — including some of the greatest cartoon stories ever produced — and then churn out one of the worst films ever made?
In the case of Disney Studios, the problem is its leaders are completely caught up in progressive ideology and have come to loathe their own past. Disney+ was caught just this past October censoring its own classic films like Aladdin and Fantasia to make them more culturally woke. The irony is the studio known for its amazing legacy of children’s entertainment has thrown out the “baby” of basic storytelling principles with the “bathwater” of supposed cultural insensitivity.
For nearly two years, Disney marketers have been publicly wishing on their stars to align in 2023 for their 100th anniversary year. The faltering studio’s 62nd animated feature, Wish, would be an extravagant valentine to the biggest Disney hit movies and also its newest massive cruise liner coincidentally named, um, Wish, hint, hint. Disney poured more than $200 million into Wish and needed the movie to mirror Frozen/Encanto in cultural-benchmark territory — particularly to erase the $300-million loss on its balance sheet from its recent feminist comic-book flop, Marvels.
But the people behind Wish are so busy trying to be culturally more responsible than the prior Disney hits that they won’t learn from them how to build an amazing story world and what makes for great character transformation.
It’s less a story and more a weird pastiche, with some pretty animation, but very little heart, and even less for the head. If the movie was just sloppy and stupid, we could shrug it off and even permit it for children too young to know that the story doesn’t make sense. But there is a perniciousness to Wish that has to do with its self-conscious awareness of the power of the movie medium and its determination to manipulate children instead of delight them.
Clearly, Disney is out of story ideas. Its 2023 summer flop, Haunted Mansion, wasn’t a story either, but rather a long and transparent commercial for an amusement-park ride. But at least the ride provided 10 minutes of source material. In the case of Wish, the entire plot seems to have been built around the phrase “When you wish upon a star …” That line is from probably Disney’s greatest film, the highly moral, coming-of-age-tale Pinocchio. Stripped of its context in Wish, the famous song becomes a ham-fisted marketing jingle. Part of the annoying ethos of Wish is its desperate subtext of “Disney’s great! Disney’s great!” The message the audience internalizes, however, is “Disney was great. What a waste.”
The story in Wish is weak, confusing, lacking suspense and telegraphic in the audience it seems to be targeting. In the kingdom of Rosas — surely named to attract Latino theatergoers — everything seems fine and happy. But look deeper, and you find systemic patriarchy! The sorcerer king, Magnifico, is an egomaniacal white male who has been cruelly suppressing his subjects’ dreams — in a premise surely created to attract male-hating feminist theatergoers.
The protagonist is a spunky biracial female adolescent named Asha, surely named to attract spunky … oh, never mind. In a major story fail, the movie doesn’t give us a real reason to like Asha. She doesn’t feel fresh or clever but comes off as a kind of headstrong activist. Because Asha was created not to be relatable as a human being, but to check all the external identity-politics boxes, the storytellers at Disney didn’t have the guts to give her any of the deep personality flaws that are the stuff of great characters. They’re hoping kids will like her because of what she represents instead of who she is really. That doesn’t work in storytelling.
Asha’s support network consists not so much of a group of friends, but a United Nations DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) panel. There is a gender ambiguous, but ostensibly brilliant, disabled female; a black female with a man’s name, Hal; a curmudgeonly dwarf boy with a heart of gold; an elusive, apparently Arab, female; and, oh, two goofy and useless white guys. Any remaining diverse theatergoers not already won over to the film are presumably on board by the end of the first act’s tedious parade of inclusivity. Again, audiences don’t connect like that.
The story unfolds as Asha meets with King Magnifico and figures out in minutes what no one else in the kingdom has noticed for decades, namely, that he is wickedly stifling his subjects’ personal autonomy. Now, there’s a narrative conflict every 6-year-old can sign on to!
Asha flees into the forest where she rebelliously makes a wish upon a star, instead of on the king, and then has her entire perspective reoriented to understand the completely unrelated atheistic dictum that people, animals, trees and stars are all made of the same basic stuff.
On Disney’s website for the film, lyricist Benjamin Rice explained the challenge of writing a beautiful song while needing to incorporate progressive ideology: “I’m a Star was one of the most challenging songs we tackled, because we’re trying to give a seventh-grade science lesson in the middle of the pop song — while also incorporating multiple characters, making it catchy, and giving the audience the most positive and inclusive message possible. It’s based on the idea that we’re all made of stars.”
The phrase “we’re all made of star dust” is a fatuous euphemism one hears from people who do not believe in God. It’s their tricky way of saying that human beings aren’t special because everything is special. This extended scene in the film has lots of lovely animation, but no real narrative purpose. It’s just there to spread the gospel of “People Are Basically Terrible.”
Normally, one of the functions of music in a movie is to unite the scenes of the piece into a cohesive whole. It acts like a unifying umbrella that brings the movie together. In Wish, however, in the urgency to be diverse and inclusive, every song is a different style, such that the music makes the film disjointed. There’s rap, hip hop, pop and more traditional-style anthems. Composer Dave Metzger assured film critics that he had studiously incorporated “ethnic percussions” in his score. In terms of the score, this film is nowhere near Disney’s best musicals. It’s certainly no Beauty and the Beast. Or even, Frozen. Heck, it doesn’t even make it to The Aristocats.
The biggest problem of Wish, from a Christian standpoint, is its theme. The story asserts that everyone is responsible to realize their own dreams and that no outside force can make your wishes come true. There is a lot of time spent showing how pathetic and naïve the people of Rosas are for trusting their king with their hopes and dreams. They plead and implore the king to grant their wishes — kind of like, you know, people who pray to God, or even just trust for stuff from parents.
Glutted with his power, evil Magnifico spins his own version of Psalm 62 and proclaims to Asha, “I am the one who decides what is good for them.” This whole subtext in Wish is an overt slap to those who build their lives around trust in God. It’s one thing to encourage children to take responsibility for their choices. It’s quite another to assert that there is no help for us “out there” somewhere; that basically we “stars” are on our own to make of our lives what we will.
The end of the film is never in doubt. Of course, Asha and her female squad conquer the evil white male wizard through the sheer power of their united wills. It doesn’t matter how, right? What matters is that children know that sisterhood makes women actually more powerful than men.
The queen dumps her nasty husband and assumes leadership of the kingdom. Everyone in Rosas is freed of their prior dependence on the king, and they all set about fulfilling their hearts’ desires. The children in my row at the theater were up and out of their seats before the credits even started to roll. I was annoyed by the movie, but, devastating for Disney, the kids were just bored.
Disney’s Wish is startlingly unfulfilling as entertainment and just as vacuous in terms of having any real wisdom to share. It only makes sense when regarded as a stylish 92-minute catechism of progressive ideology. Even the majority of mainstream critics who agree with the movie’s messages couldn’t swallow the relentless sacrificing of good narrative choices on the altar of painfully earnest propagandizing.
Wish is the worst reviewed Disney film in a generation, with a 49% “rotten” rating on the critical aggregate site RottenTomatoes.com, and it deserves all the derision it’s getting. It fails because it isn’t given as a gift to kids and families, but rather as an offering to fix them in that eerie grim and resolute way that defines the wielders of wokeness. This one is not just a dumb movie. It’s a serious pass.
This film is rated PG for thematic elements and mild action.
Barbara Nicolosi, Ph.D., is the screenwriter of the movie Fatima (2020) and the author of the book Notes to Screenwriters.