Directed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn
Written by Jennifer Lee, Allison Moore, Chris Buck, and Fawn Veerasunthorn
It's edging into provocative contrarianism to even weakly defend Wish, the 62nd "canonical" feature of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Intended as the centerpiece for a celebration of a century of existence for the Disney company—almost an "adaptation" of that company's very theme song, "When You Wish Upon a Star"—it's now become something perilously close to a confirmation that Disney has gone from the undisputed master of popular culture to an institution despised by what feels like literally everybody. Yeah, considering Wish's plot, it is funny that way. But I will defend it, a little: I, speaking very, very personally, think it at least looks great.
This is not the consensus on Wish, and hasn't been since before it was even released. But I like what Wish is doing, and what Wish is trying to do, with Disney's CGI house style, established thirteen years ago by Tangled and advancing only iteratively, if at all, ever since. Someone, perhaps WDAS head (and Wish co-writer) Jennifer Lee, or perhaps the film's directors, Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, had the idea that Wish, celebrating the centennial of an animation studio that began before "computer generated imagery" was even science fiction, should hearken back to the traditions that actually built its legacy. Initially, they would be encouraged by the traditional animation fans who constitute a disproportionate number of voices on social media, and who clearly account for a very small percentage of paying audiences; they were likely heartened more by Sony and DreamWorks' recent profitable experiments in getting away from how CGI animation "had" to look. WDAS's experiment in doing 2-D in 3-D is not half so radical, and, honestly, that even seems correct: aesthetic conservatism is as much a WDAS tradition as anything else. But it still results in one distinctive Disney cartoon, its 3-D figures flattened significantly, rendered as "drawings," complete with outlines, against backgrounds that are flattened almost all the way, till they genuinely look like paintings.
Like anything, one can quibble. There's the occasional jerkiness to the character animation that, without going back and rewatching the last twelve or so WDAS movies to freshly compare them, is basically just what Disney CGI character animation has always looked like, but which the flattening (and attempts to compensate for the flattening) tend to make more salient. I'm much more interested in the algorithmic handicraft of those backgrounds: the quibbles for this come in a pair, and only one of them is really a "criticism," as such. The first is that, apparently out of sheer preference, the particular painterly aesthetic seized upon was watercolors, i.e., a medium not that well-represented in Disney's classic animated features, and most forcefully right at the beginning in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which seems like it should be the film's touchstone yet which it resembles in almost no way, tacking more towards a watercolored drawing sort of thing. (It feels "papery" in the way "pigment" saturates, but not so much like there are brushstrokes on top of it.) The other quibble is that it is—hey, look, we agree on something—sort of generic. "Extremely, belligerently generic" would not be out-of-bounds. Some of this is the color palette, which is limited, almost without exaggeration, to approximately three soothing colors—aquamarine, a few lab-tested purple hues, and to get to three I guess we'll need to include "gray" (I could just say "it's Frozen")—though it is, sometimes, punched up by way of villainous greens. Some of it is that our setting is like the stock photo version of a "children's fantasy kingdom."
I promise there's an interesting part, and that's how this animated movie's "camera" interacts with all these generically-pretty backdrops—immobile architecture and semi-mobile forests, and even the animated background characters—by having their detail fall out more and more into abstraction the further away they get, so that any given wide shot is a very quietly cool thing, with high-tech lighting effects and the possibilities of movement applied to backgrounds which would have remained, in the things being evoked, distractingly motionless. (It's still sometimes doing "rack focus" and the like in the foreground, much as one would in normal animated "cinematography," and I'd have dropped this hard; but, like I said, aesthetically conservative. And they were doing this even in CAPS.) Well, I've reviewed Sleeping Beauty, I love Sleeping Beauty, and obviously when I talked about Sleeping Beauty I didn't spend time insanely complaining about immobile background characters (I'm actually pretty sure I did, but I realized I was being ridiculous). But would I prefer it if those characters, still looking like they've been drawn, or even painted into the backdrop, did move? Oh my, yes. And I could, hypothetically, get very excited about this, for, hypothetically, it could be one of the most wonderful new animators' toys since Disney started copying-and-pasting townsfolk into digitally-manipulated crowd scenes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Wish's new toy is one that's more fun to play with right out of the box.) It means that Wish is never too far away from something neat, though the neatest arrives fairly early, in what is probably the film's single most stylized image—something you'd want to be more like a baseline, but what are you gonna do? (I suppose one could argue the 2-D-esque effects animation is "more stylized," and it is cool)—this image being of a young woman walking out across a hefty tree branch that extends horizontally from a cliff into empty air, which dialogue describes as the place where you can meet this gorgeous "painted" backdrop of a sky. I outright adore how this animated film is able to very clearly distinguish this sky as artifice within the artifice of CG animation, which is probably harder than it seems.
So I will humbly forward that there is a possibility that commentators have been blinded to this lovely Disney princess musical's charms by other aspects of the film, namely that its characters aren't good, its story is bad, and its songs are horrific. That'll do it, won't it? Characters and story first: as shall be explained to us by way of an old-fashioned Disney storybook introduction, immediately reinforced by a manic expository musical number that is, somewhat objectively, the best song or staging of a song that the movie will ever give us, on the island of Rosas lives a mighty sorcerer named Magnifico (Chris Pine), who has built a kingdom founded upon the granting of wishes. This is where it becomes immediately overcomplicated, but it's best to just get through it. So: what Magnifico does here is, upon his subjects' majority, take their fondest wishes, which he transmutes into physical objects (little blue spheres with representative vignettes playing inside them), whilst simultaneously erasing them from his subjects' minds, so that they forget what their wish was, knowing only that they wished for something. It occurs to none of them to write what they wished for down, or to tell another person, even though if these were their most cherished dreams they probably would have—and no, we'll do this later. From time to time, Magnifico holds ceremonies where he grants a fraction of these wishes, while those who wait at least have something to wait for, even if we're occasionally told, without it ever really being—later, later, damn your eyes—that they've lost an important part of themselves.
One of those who wait is a declining centenarian (ohhhh... I don't get it), grandfather of our heroine, Asha (Ariana DeBose), who's commended herself to Magnifico's service as his sorcerer's apprentice—curiously, the one "reference to the deep and majestic legacy of Walt Disney" that ought to have come the most naturally, in a movie that forces too many of these references, doesn't appear to have even occurred to anybody—but she blows it before she's even properly hired on, precipitously asking that Magnifico show her grandfather special favor. On top of that, when he lets her in on his secrets—most of which seem to be open information already—Asha is aghast, because some wishes, such as her grandfather's, will never be granted. Her dearest wish now, it would seem, would be to overthrow the system. Rather than vaporizing her (or imprisoning her, or taking her wish and mindwiping her, i.e., the one thing we know for sure Magnifico's magic can do), Magnifico simply doesn't give her the job, and sort of rubs her face in it. But this night Asha makes a wish the old-fashioned way, upon a star. That star descends from the sky to offer Asha the power to change her world, and, with Asha's friends eventually convinced to stand beside her, Magnifico faces a full-blown revolution.
This is not awful, really, though as my compulsion to tear into it shows, it's very klutzy and, as is customary with modern Disney screenplays, especially Disney screenplays with Buck and Lee's names on them, these concepts bear the marks of being dragged across the broken glass of a thousand story development meetings, less logical than they must've started out as, and fiddled with till the point of dysfunction. The big problem, or at least by far the biggest, is how shockingly little thought—even energy—gets devoted to its core idea, which is, of course, that it's better to have your dreams, even if they're hopeless, because dreams make you who you are. It's by no means ever coherent enough to posit this idea's opposite, that dreams often get in the way of living, and that the dissatisfaction that's inherent in desire is itself a keen a form of suffering, which is a big enough idea that it serves as the basis for a major real-world religion. To say that it doesn't grapple with these ideas is too much; it would suggest an awareness of anything to be grappled with. That puts us well below the philosophical level it seems like any story like this should at least know about, but that's corporate entertainment in 2023, which is always more eager to reflect upon itself, so what we get is more an utterly out-of-focus allegory for the film industry, which somehow equates Disney (Walt, the monopolistic corporate entity bearing Walt's name, Bob Iger, I don't know) with Asha's brave rebels, rather than the almighty sorcerer who accrues all dreams to himself, deciding which get to come true and which get thrown into obscurity.
On a more concrete level, there's just not much done to explore life in this secret dystopia—the film begins with a crowd joyfully congregating in the square; it ends exactly the same—and part of this is that the movie's quite brief (95 minutes, with long credits), but it still seems like it should've been able to do something to indicate the grim drabness of an existence without dearly-held dreams, even if it also needs to present Magnifico's realm as superficially shiny and eutopian. This is simply not that dreary, conformist of a world, or if it is, then it still seems okay. They dance, they sing, maybe they fall in love. I assume they do; at least the king has a wife (Angelique Cabral). On the level of brass-tacks story logistics, we have a villain whose villainy involves doing more-or-less what he says he's doing, with the consent of those to whom he's doing it, and if you think about it for three seconds it becomes incredibly obvious that there needs to be some vetting of fondest wishes. (My fondest wish is to fuck Audrey Hepburn. What would that entail?) On the other hand, it's not at all clear why Asha's suggestion of giving dreams back if they suck could be remotely threatening to a mighty mage. On the other-other hand, Magnifico's regime keeps its promises. (He's not eating your dreams... yet, anyway.) It's striking that one tertiary character's wish is to fly, under her own power, like a bird. This is not a dream that can be pursued on its own in all but the most quotidian, unsatisfactory manner; quotidian, unsatisfactory pursuit is precisely what she'll be offered. It's far too literalistic, but it's still worth pointing out that under Magnifico, some wishes are granted; in any alternative, none are. Sure, that's "the point" of the movie, that the psychic rewards of nurturing a wish are more vital than being handed a supernatural boon. It doesn't quite figure out how to make you feel that its argument is correct, even though it kind of has to be, what with the notable dearth of wish-granting warlocks out here in our world.
I said "characters and story" and barely feel like I've described the former, which is probably because there's not much to them to describe. Besides our two principals, there's Asha's seven friends, patterned on the Seven Dwarfs but, to this movie's credit, it doesn't shove this all the way down your throat, except for one of Asha's friends getting locked into the single "personality" trait of debilitating allergies. They are, all in all, okay. There is the Star, a silent cosmic being who serves very little purpose, and is designed with cutesy merchandisability foremost in mind, but also causes no serious harm, unless you want to get into the numerous opportunities foregone for Asha doing clever things on her own, which I suppose I won't; there is also Valentino (Alan Tudyk), a goat evidently designed to be the ultimate annoying Disney sidekick—he's 80% butt jokes—also with cutesy merchandisability in mind (I can only assume this goat wears an ugly yellow nightgown for copyright purposes), who does cause serious harm, when he's talking, but this is less often than you'd expect from the traditionally-repulsive Disney trailers that, this time, actually drove most people away.
As for Asha herself, as the protagonist of a clunky story, she suffers more than she ought; I very much like the cleanliness of her appropriately-Keanesque design, and for all the tiresome "adorkable" discourse (the sort of thing that makes me genuinely sad, mostly just a subset of complaints about girls not girling correctly in media, all very pointless and poisonous), she's a likeable presence, and DeBose is heroic just for rising to "fine" with this material. It's probably through her that we do get a reasonably adequate story about overthrowing an evil despot by the end. Which wheels us to Magnifico, which is where the incoherence manifests the worst, with the character pulled in two mutually exclusive directions till he's rent at the seams. The goal was a "classic Disney villain"-style force of pure, unadulterated—shall we say?—maleficence, but this is not pursued with "classic Disney" narrative tools. Magnifico also has to rule over his kingdom with what seems like benevolence, and also has to have a loving wife who, herself, isn't evil, and latterday Disney has a hard time not confusing evil with prosaic venality... and so what they ended up with was a figure simultaneously too evil to have a point-of-view but not initially evil enough to be a fun cartoon villain, something they "fix" with a cursed magical tome halfway through in what amounts, essentially, to an entirely different character taking over. Aggravatingly, the narrative retains sufficient scars—intimations of backstory they didn't even bother removing!—that you can tell there was originally something interesting there. Pine suffers immensely, and other than shifting his voice from "irritating self-amused smarm" to "rasping vileness," I don't think there's a single choice he makes—no choice he could make—that gets Magnifico to actually work. It's somehow an enormous drop-off from the last time he played this exact same character in Don't Worry Darling, which at least didn't make fully half the lines his cult leader says (or, in this case, sings) glib and stupid.
Or sings, because, after all, Wish is a celebration of the Disney musical (and I called it "a princess musical" earlier, the form of which it apes; if it were literally true, it would instantaneously have given its conflicts some of the heft they desperately need). Anyway, Julia Michaels, JP Saxe, and Benjamin Rice's songs collectively represent the worst of Wish, and while I don't need to dwell on them because they've become so instantly infamous, it's honestly difficult to briefly sum up why they're bad. Or maybe it wouldn't be that hard, given that the film's impact has been practically reduced to a single lyric found in the chorus of "This Wish," a nebulous "I want" number that embodies Asha's prayer to the stars, which goes, "So I look up to the stars to guide me, and throw caution to every warning sign," and which does somewhat speak for itself.
It's become part of the only-half-joking supposition that Wish was written by AI, but that's too optimistic: if an AI did write Wish's songs, then AI is obviously worse than some of the people paid actual money to make art, and some executive would've read what it spit out, whereupon the executive would've sent it back through. Let's say it was Bob Iger. Bob Iger doesn't strike me as the world's most competent man, but he's fluent in English, and would recognize "throw caution to every warning sign" as a malapropic rendition of an idiom that's so barely an idiom in the first place that I expect it has corollaries for virtually every people group who've ever seen dust be carried off by the wind. This is so clearly human folly, a "poetic" stamp that a human being managed to successfully argue was good, and yet still could not be more misjudged. And, Jesus, at least I get the idea: the subsequent slurry of words that "warning sign" was kludged together to rhyme with, "If knowing what it could be is what drives me/Then let me be the first to stand in line" is, albeit less flamboyantly, probably worse, as it takes three minutes of intently staring at it to see what it means, and it somehow reads as less English-fluent than "warning sign." I'm going to stop reading the lyrics to "I Wish" now, as they're beginning to make me second-guess the "not an AI" thing, and are (further) ruining what is, at least, a listenable song musically.
And it is mainly Michaels's lyrics that are getting slagged (a potpourri of lines Michaels considered acceptable, this time just from memory to keep myself sane: "peep the name, I'm magnificent, I put the 'I' in omnipotent"; "I get these genes from outer space"; "here's a fun little allegory that gets me all excitatory," which has the added terribleness of being sung while film's most heinously ugly visual, a collection of 2-D-in-3-D translations of the trees from 1932's groundbreaking Silly Symphony, "Flowers and Trees," are conjured up as cackling eldritch monsters; and, of course, "when it comes to the universe, we're all shareholders," which is the most immaculate "corporate entertainment in 2023" thing I, myself, never could have imagined). But this lets Rice (sometimes Saxe) off the hook way too easily, just because some of these songs are merely a little pop-mechanical, and not outrageously bad if you don't listen to the words. (I even mostly like, words and music, the scene-setting "Welcome To Rosas," which is "bad" mainly in the way that it follows the screenplay's inability to capture the slightest whiff of cultural ennui; I also like the drum-heavy martial quality of "Knowing What I Know Now," sending us into the third act on a mission, even if the lyrics are clumsy.)
But then there's the big villain song, "This Is the Thanks I Get?!," intended to stand alongside things like "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and "Be Prepared," and I can't imagine what the fuck the composer was thinking: already, it's the bearer of those aforementioned frivolous phrases, "peep the name" and "genes from outer space"; already, it's sung by a guy who cannot, from the evidence of Wish, sing; and none of that is the bad part yet. The bad part is that it's driven by this infantile, bouncy melody that is the furthest thing from "the triumph of darkness" conceivable. The animated flourish around these songs is sometimes decent even if you can feel that not enough effort was being made—sometimes it's the opposite, and you wish the effort weren't there, because the effort resulted in a sequence where chickens projectile-birth eggs—and "This Is the Thanks I Get?!," awful down to the punctuation in its title, is no exception. Only now the music is in total contradiction to the visual action, like Magnifico smashing up all these toy versions of his subjects. There's also, somewhere, a love duet that's likely an artifact of when Magnifico was interesting, repurposed as an expositional number.
But then there's still the look of the film, and I'm depressed that this experiment obviously won't get to be further pursued. (Did I mention what a tremendously bad year it's been for Disney, commercially?) Yet I guess I'd have to call it my favorite WDAS movie in years anyway—and ain't that something for me to mull over while we head into the uncertain future of cinema?