Saturday, February 24, 2024

‘Wish’ is What Happens When Commerce Beats Art

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It’s been a while since a movie has left me as cold as Wish did. Disney’s latest suffers from a creative schism that dilutes everything imaginative and blunts all emotion. Running through Wish is a raging river of anti-fascism messaging, which I applaud. But the river gets damned up by commercialism and fan service, the likes we haven’t seen since Ready Player One

Wish is a bad movie. However, the badness doesn’t come from the animation style that Chris Buck and co-director Fawn Veerasunthorn, along with the animators, use to tell the story or even the primary thrust of the story Jennifer Lee and Allison Moore wish to tell. It is as plain as the attempt to sell toys that corporate interference is the culprit of the film’s badness.

Left to right: Star, Valentino (Alan Tudyk) and Asha (Arianna DeBose)

Lee and Moore’s script can even be read as an indictment of Disney Studios, especially in the way that the King of Rosas, Magnifico (Chris Pine), hordes the wishes of his people and refuses to release them even if they go ungranted. Like Tim Burton’s Dumbo, there is a timbre of rage aimed at the Magical Kingdom and the rank capitalistic greed that permeates not only Uncle Walt but Hollywood itself.

Once upon a time, it would be possible to smuggle provocative themes and ideas into corporate films. But these days, the corporate desire for profit is so strong that they can bury the ideas under an avalanche of scenes focus-tested to death along with heaps and heaps of nods and “easter eggs” while building a broader “universe” and suffocating them to utter uselessness. I will never forgive Kevin Feige or the MCU for the insidious idea of connectivity itself, merely blatant marketing for loyal consumers.

But back to Wish, a movie that spends its runtime trying to show its heart only to have it smothered by cynicism. It has moments with glimmers of imagination- glorious, absurd moments that promise something better, even daring. One of these scenes had my wife whispering in my ear that it was “Disney on acid”. 

A forest of talking animals and sentient trees serenades Asha (Ariana DeBose) as a magical star that grants life and chaos everywhere it goes. Yet, despite boundless energy and imagination, it feels like Dinsey is trying to do Shrek in this momentIt only gets worse as, bit by bit, the goofiness becomes a series of references to other Disney movies, leaving the scene a faint shadow of what might have been.

Wish has a noble message stuffed into a movie that will evaporate hours after you watch it, as will the songs. I could list a litany of reasons that make Wish a drag, but the thing that makes it D.O.A. is how lifeless the musical numbers by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice are. Dave Metzger’s score only makes things worse by having no identity of its own. The songs are meant to rally the spirit but rarely do anything but muster a desire to check your watch.

Even the character design of Star, a vital character, is designed in a way that is so nakedly inspired by market research that it feels less like a character and more like a walking advertisement for the toy version. Which it is.

Don’t get me started on how Wish seems unable to realize how to use DeBose’s vocal talents best. She is a singer who can melt even the stoniest of hearts and turn any part into a richly felt character. Yet, Wish gives her little to do or belt out. It’s Lin Manuel Miranda without a keen understanding of a hook or how a song can lift you out of your seat. It takes a lunkhead to have DeBose sing multiple songs and not accidentally stumble upon a finger-snapping moment or accidentally brush up against a genuine emotion.

In contrast, Angelique Cabral’s Queen Amaya has a moment where she belts out a lyric that shows how vacuous the musical numbers have been so far. Cabral’s brief moment of righteous anger expressed through song had me sitting up, almost drawn to the screen. But don’t worry, like every other good thing in Wish, this too shall pass.

Magnifico (Chris Pine) reveals his dastardly plan.

For every aspect of Wish that I admired, be it the way that Buck and Veerasunthorn give the film an actual storybook feel, the animation having a textured feel, there is a walking talking studio note like Valentino voiced by Alan Tudyk. Valentino is a pointless talking goat. I am familiar with Disney and recognize the tradition of talking animal sidekicks. But Valentino adds nothing, does nothing, and could have been voiced by anybody. 

He is there because Wish can never be satisfied being its own movie. It must always pay homage, riffing on, or in some way tipping its hat to other Dinsey movies. Because, don’t you know, it’s all connected.

Wish has been robbed of its soul by soulless executives who care not a jot about the story, emotional beats, or even basic joke-telling. Poor Buck and Veerasunthorn struggle to breathe life into Lee and Moore’s story. But what little energy and inspiration Wish has crumples under the weight of self-satisfaction and tie-ins.

The rank stench of corporate meddling spoils whatever sweetness Wish might have. Even its lack of pity for the villain or the way townspeople come together, in the end, to fight for themselves proves that collectivism is nothing without mutual aid and is blunted by the crassness of all that came before it. 

Lee and Moore’s script must be unrecognizable to them as there seem to be too many characters and not enough motivations to go around. I haven’t even mentioned Sabino (Victor Garber), Sakina (Natasha Rothwell), Dahlia (Jennifer Kumiyama), Gabo (Harvey Guillen), Hal (Niko Vargas), or Safy (Ramy Youssef). All of whom play a part but in ways that feel insubstantial. 

The only exceptions are Garber’s Sabo and Rothwell’s Dahlia. I’m sure the intent was to show how stories and lives in a kingdom intertwine, but Wish is too busy making sure Star does something cute, so you’ll want to buy the toy.

In the end, despite the Antifa message, that’s what drives Wish, the toy sales. Wish might have been something monumental had the storytellers been allowed to tell a story. Instead, we got a giant commercial with whispers of art folded between the sponsors.

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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