There’s a famous conspiracy theory that posits the moon landing was faked as the result of fancy filmmaking from Stanley Kubrick — who later felt so guilty about what he did that he hid a complex “confession” within the frames of his famous 1980 film The Shining.
Of course, in reality that’s nonsense. But with a few small twists and turns, you can apply that theory to Wish, the latest Disney animated musical that reaches new heights in pandering and manipulation as it becomes a virtual commercial for Disney as a culture. Seen in a certain light, Wish could serve as a confession that, yes, Disney was just pretending all along, half-heartedly providing its veneer of magical, life-affirming content that betrays the crass consumerism and self-aggrandizing behavior they’ve been accused of for years hiding just below the surface.
Wish follows Asha (voiced by Ariana DeBose, 2021’s West Side Story), a headstrong, independent girl approaching 18 years of age. In the land of Rosas, that means she gets an audience with the sorcerer King Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine), who is interviewing young people for his assistant role — a sorcerer’s apprentice, if you will.
The story of Rosas goes that Magnifico became a sorcerer and gained the ability to protect the wishes and deepest desires of others, removing them from people’s conscious thoughts to preserve their happiness. Magnifico calls it “safekeeping.” Once the wishes are gone, people no longer remember them, and many people become calmer, maybe vaguely happier but also less themselves. Plus, a few times a year, Magnifico chooses someone to actually receive their wish.
Asha wants nothing more than to fulfill the wish held by her grandfather (voiced by Victor Garber). But during Asha’s encounter with Magnifico, she learns he’s less hero and more zero — insecure, power-hungry and vain. His goal isn’t so much to actually grant wishes and be a benevolent leader as it is to maintain his control over the population.
As it turns out, Magnifico only grants wishes to those he feels have specifically “safe” wishes. He’s paranoid and controlling, but he has most of his people fooled. Magnifico is a politician, one who has fooled the people (and himself) into thinking he’s working for the greater good.
Asha becomes disillusioned and makes a wish upon a star — a star that comes to life and gives her a natural counterpart to Magnifico’s darker, more selfish magic. Star’s powers anthropomorphize plants and animals, giving them the ability to speak and sing, and also giving Asha hope.
The characters are classic archetypes and have just enough of a modern spin to both honor Disney’s legacy and feel contemporary enough to reflect current values. Asha is strong and independent, thinks for herself and isn’t obsessed with love. She’s clearly biracial (her father is white and her mother is Black), and Rosas is vaguely located in the Mediterranean, where it could (and does) reflect a variety of cultures and ethnicities. Asha enlists the help of her friends, who themselves may or may not reflect different races and ethnicities, to come together and fight a tormentor who enriches himself at their expense all while claiming he’s the only one who can keep them safe. They’re a sanitized bunch, but spirited, lively, and mostly supportive of each other.
In other words, Wish checks all the boxes.
And it’s a smokescreen, itself a distraction that deflects away from Disney’s self-congratulatory, and dare I even say propagandizing, behavior. The film exists mostly to fête Disney, a masturbatory look-how-great-we-are wrapped in a cloak of ego and greed.
For many years, Disney has absorbed criticism that they (akin to Magnifico) peddled unhealthy, even toxic wish-fulfillment — pointing women toward dependence on men, “traditional” values and immersion of self-worth in whether they score a rich, powerful boyfriend. It then doubled down, telling boys their self-worth was tied to power and scoring a super-attractive princess. All of their princesses for decades were lilly-white, and their idea of diversity was a sidekick with a somewhat offensive accent.
Disney executives played a key role in perpetuating those stereotypes and “traditional values,” with the excuse they were reflecting society and giving people what they wanted. As society evolved, they dug in, making changes as slowly as they could before finally bowing to pressure and creating characters like Maribel, Ana and Elsa, Rapunzel, Tiana, Mulan and others that depicted women in a more positive, empowering light and embraced diversity.
After decades, Disney showed sensitivity and an interest in cultivating more positive displays of behavior in relationships and working to stop toxic masculinity from creeping in. But again, it was a downward slope, a straight line from the clueless, blankly heroic Prince Charming to the vapid Prince Eric, the outright abusive Beast, to the slowly less offensive but not-really-better Flynn in Tangled. Hell, Christof in Frozen 2 is perhaps the best display of positive masculinity ever in a Disney film. And Disney deserves credit for that, even if it had to be dragged kicking and screaming down that road.
All of this brings us to Wish, where Asha has the potential to be an all-timer. She’s vibrant, strong and independent, questioning authority not just when she wants to but as an instinct. Romance isn’t on her mind. She has multiple platonic male and female friends. And she deserves more than what Wish gives her, mostly surrounding her with cute sidekicks like Valentino, a baby goat voiced by Alan Tudyk, who doesn’t stand alongside characters like Olaf, Sebastian or Thumper.
Structurally, the story isn’t particularly strong, but it’s in line with Disney’s established formula. Neither are the musical numbers particularly memorable, but there are a couple that hold up to scrutiny, particularly the Act III piece “Knowing What I Know Now,” which spotlights the changing attitudes of the characters who, realizing they’ve been sold a bill of goods, resolve to stand up to Magnifico. It’s maybe the closest thing to Disney’s Kubrick moment, such as it is — sort of an apology for all the misogyny over the years.
But it all rings hollow in the end, particularly as Disney peppers in homages to past films in a way that feels cutesy and inoffensive for a while. But then it goes beyond Disney’s usual Easter-egg style and becomes overt, as if Wish was a prequel of sorts — the genesis of the Disney Cinematic Universe, Marvel-style. It devolves into silly, unnecessary fan service.
Then we get back to Magnifico, who has a solid story of his own and is certainly a more complex villain with his own trauma and a desire to protect everyone to the extent that he becomes a tyrant. Neither he nor the masses realize he’s become an oppressor, and he denies it once it comes to light. In a sense, he’s a stand-in for Disney management — blustery and arrogant, and perpetually convincing himself of his own greatness.
But it’s a metaphor that folds in on itself, collapsing under the weight of hypocrisy. Magnifico never realizes his own folly and becomes trapped under the burden of his own success. Magnifico is Disney. If only the people making Wish knew that.