Disney’s periods of success and failure have always come in waves, tracing back to the company’s beginnings exactly 100 years ago. For every Disney Renaissance or Golden Era, there’s a disappointing slate to follow of critical and commercial failures – who can forget the mid-aughts era of Home on the Range and Chicken Little? It’s only natural that the Disney Revival – the recent string of successes from The Princess and the Frog to Encanto – would be followed by another string of disappointments. What could not be predicted, however, is how far they’ve fallen. For Wish, the Mouse House’s big 100 celebration film, is not just one of the worst films of the year – it is arguably the worst Disney film of all time.
The land of Rosas seems like a paradise. Protected by the dashing sorcerer king Magnifico (Chris Pine) and his wife Amaya (Angelique Cabral), the kingdom manages to maintain peace through a carefully enforced ritual: at the age of 18, everyone in the kingdom turns over their wish – their heart’s desire – to King Magnifico, so that they’ll never remember it. Then, once a year, Magnifico will use his magic to make their dreams come true. Everyone is happy under the system – that is, until, idealist Asha (Ariana DeBose) visits the king to ask that he grant her grandfather’s (Victor Garber) wish on his 100th birthday.
Instead, Asha learns the terrible truth: that Magnifico, in order to maintain order in the kingdom, prevents granting the “dangerous” wishes. And because anything could be used to incite violence, that means most wishes never get granted. Horrified, Asha makes a wish to help the kingdom on a star in the sky. And the star, hearing her wish, comes to Rosas to help her…somehow? I don’t know, the star’s only real powers seem to be making animals talk and making trees wear clothes. At any rate, Asha, the Star, and her now-talking goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk) set out to rescue everyone’s wishes as Magnifico slowly descends into madness.
Everything in Wish is just so bland. The filmmakers have so little faith in their viewers that they boil every single detail – character, story, emotion – down to the dullest possible presentation. Within the first five minutes, the characters offer up haphazardly delivered references to the rest of the plot, as if the audience can’t be trusted to figure out this children’s story on their own. “Isn’t the king great? He would never do anything to hurt us,” they declare, obviously hinting at the “twist” to come. When an obnoxiously cute goat leaps forward to entice kids to buy toys, they muse “Oh, Valentino, if only you could talk so we could understand you!” as if the talking goat hadn’t been the focal point of the marketing campaign since Day 1.
Of course, maybe it’s the case the characters have to explain everything that’s going on, since there’s nothing in their character design to offer anything close to a personality. Asha is a dull and uninteresting protagonist. She takes no risks, has no strengths or flaws, and her only dream is that people can dream. She lacks the passion or drive of previous heroines like Ariel, Belle, Moana…I mean, even Snow White had some defining characteristics. Asha stumbles from scene to scene in search of some semblance of humanity. The film ultimately fails so ridiculously that when the film eventually reveals that the character bears some significance in Disney canon (since everyone in this film is a reference to something better), you won’t feel dazzled or excited. You’ll be left wondering when, before that film, she grows a personality.
On the other end of the spectrum are characters who defy their own beliefs just to further the plot. When we last see Grandpa Sabino in the film’s first act, he’s berating Asha for being selfish (for no apparent reason). When he next appears, he’s completely forgotten that he’s supposed to be mad, fully understanding and supporting that his granddaughter is a wanted criminal cavorting with an anthropomorphic star. The same goes for Magnifico. Instead of playing him sinister from the jump (like Maleficent) or creating a clever twist (like Hans), the film subjects us to a big song about how kind he is (a song played legitimately) before he just casually goes “Oh yeah, I’m evil.” Wish has no stakes, no story, nothing – and without any investment, there’s no reason to care.
Equally disappointing is the dull, lifeless animation. It is clear something is amiss here from the opening, when Disney attempts to recreate their classic storybook openings in their new 3D animation stylings. Now, this wouldn’t work even with the best animation rendered – the 3D storybook simply doesn’t look right. But the problem here goes deeper than that. Everything in this film is equally subpar. In fact, most sequences and character designs rise above the animated direct-to-DVD films of the early aughts – at least the Barbie fairy tale series looked and felt more interesting. There’s no sense of that whimsy or humor in imagery that makes Disney films feel alive. Even Home on the Range could look fun at times. Here, we watch breakdancing chickens and a star design so basic it appears stolen straight from Mario’s Lumalee. It’s ugly to the point of alienating kids and adults alike.
However, beyond the disappointment of the animation and the lazy, incoherent story, Wish’s greatest flaw is its aggressively benign musical score. Instead of hiring an accomplished Broadway composer (you know, like Little Mermaid or Encanto), Disney went and hired Julia Michaels, whose career includes the 2016 hit “Issues” and then a series of indistinguishable pop songs over the last ten years. None of these songs possess anything resembling staying power. They are generic pop songs to be forgotten within two minutes of their performance. I could not tell you one thing about the melody or lyrics beyond “There’s a ballad, and a villain song, and a rebellion one.” They’re all interchangeable blobs of nothing.
Not one song in this film is remotely memorable. There’s nothing that even touches “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest,” or anything by the Sherman Brothers. When you hear a squirrel declare “Boom, did I just blow your mind?” (a line I had thankfully blocked from my memory until opening my notebook after the film), you begin to long for the days of funny, clever lines that impress kids and adults alike. Where are the masters who understand storytelling through music? Where are Menken, Miranda, or Lopez? My God, I’d even take Tim Rice at this point – and I hate Tim Rice.
If the film has any saving grace, it’s that DeBose and Pine at least try to bring life to their characters. They aren’t fully successful (again, both characters are duller than rocks), but they try. And at least they’re given more to do than their counterparts. Tudyk, who has been delightful in Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, among others, is utterly wasted on the deeply unfunny Valentino. And in a completely bizarre move, the directors have filled Asha’s friends – designed to be the “original” seven dwarves, even though it’s not really that well established – with a variety of A-listers who show up to explain their character’s one emotion. If I were Harvey Guillén, Evan Peters, Ramy Youssef or Jon Rudnitsky, I would fire my agent immediately.
Wish is a failure in almost every respect. From the plot to the story to the animation to the music, there is nothing entertaining or substantial on display. It is a soulless cash grab, choosing the cheapest, laziest option in order to capitalize on IP to celebrate the studio’s 100th. Instead, it’s an insult to everything the studio once proudly created. I might be willing to let it slide, to say “Well, it’s for the kids, and I should judge accordingly.” But when the kids in the audience loudly yell out at the end “That was boring,” and a boy in the front row pulls a phone out to watch “Baby Shark” instead (and it’s hard to blame him), it’s hard to point the blame anywhere but at the film that failed to entertain a bunch of toddlers.
Wish is, unfortunately, now playing in theaters nationwide