Radicalized wishes

Disney's Wish feels like it has a different take on power than its other animated classics

Radicalized wishes
Image: Disney

We spent Thanksgiving down in Pennsylvania with family. One of the nice perks in the area is that there's a nice movie theater in town with good seats, screens, and an attached IMAX theater. I caught Oppenheimer there over the summer, and on this latest trip, we caught Disney's latest animated film, Wish.

It's a cute film. It hasn't landed with the weight of some of their recent animated films like Frozen or Moana and it's a little formulaic, but I did come away from it with an interesting impression (along with a couple of songs that have been stuck in my head ever since.)

The film and story are designed as a bit of a throwback to the central storytelling magic that makes up most of Disney's brand: the power of wishes and the potential that comes with them. We're introduced to a young woman named Asha (Ariana DeBose) in the kingdom of Rosas, where a sorcerer king named King Magnifico (Chris Pine) has set up shop. The kingdom is prosperous and peaceful, and a requirement for living there is that everyone 18 and older has to turn over their "wish" – the greatest desire of his subject – for safekeeping. He then doles them out one by one in ceremonies.

Asha is set to interview to be his apprentice and discovers that most of those wishes aren't actually going to be granted: Magnifico only grants them when they seem like they'll be beneficial to his kingdom, and holds onto the rest. Turns out, the nice king isn't as nice, recognizes Asha as a threat to his power, goes off the deep end, and you can probably guess the rest.

There are a couple of things that really stood out to me while watching this: Wish feels very much like it's cutting against the grain when it comes to the stories that Disney has traditionally put out. Think back to classics like The Lion King, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, or Aladdin: they're stories about someone trying to engrain themselves with traditional power structures like a monarchy or kingdom.

A common criticism against the company is how the characters in their stories are often working to uphold the status quo, rather than undermining it. They make for comfortable stories, but without the context that monarchies – especially the sorts of medieval ones that these stories draw from – really aren't great for the people who live under them. That's an overly academic argument, but I think it's worth entertaining if we're talking about the long-term impact of this sort of storytelling.

Wish really doesn't follow that playbook: it's about a common girl who's given an opportunity to join in the world's power structure, and recognizing the problems in it, opts to fight back and undermine it: she (accidentally) calls down a star that pushes the paranoid king into utilizing some dark magic, and prompts her and her friends to literally set up a revolution to topple him.

The song "Knowing What I Know Now" is the song where this is realized, and not something that I think you'd see in an earlier era of Disney's films. There's a lesson that's stuck with me since I took an American history survey course in college, when my professor explained that the American Revolution really wasn't sparked by ordinary colonists who were just a bit pissed off: they were political radicals who had thought long and hard about using drastic action against their British overseers. This feels like that in a bit of a nutshell: a song about radicalization that swells into a call to action.

The other parallel strand that I've been thinking about with this film is how it shows how easy it is for someone to fall to the temptation of power. Magnifico starts off with good intentions: he was forced from his home by violence and vowed to make sure it never happened again when he set up the kingdom of Rosas. He's handsome and charismatic, and has bestowed upon his citizens the tools and freedom to thrive, despite that cost of giving up one's wish.

"At All Costs" speaks to that: it's a nice, sweeping ballad between Magnifico and Asha as he shows her the central tenet of his power: these floating orbs that are each of his citizen's wishes. They're eventually singing about two things: Magnifico is protecting those wishes because they underpin his power, while Asha sees it a little more simply: these deeply personal parts of her fellow family members and community.

The idea of going to any length to protect something is a brittle thing (I'm reminded of Nemik's observations of the brittleness of empires in his manifesto in Andor), and when pushed, things start to break.

Magnifico's descent into a darker path comes through in the song "This is the Thanks I Get?!": after Asha calls down a wish, he recognizes that his hold on power is threatened and rounds up his subjects to get information from them, only to get some pushback when Asha's friends look to delay them.

It's a clever song, because it feels like it's so illustrative of the insecurities that come with power. Sure, he set up a kingdom and sits atop a throne for benevolent reasons, but the longer he sits there, the more he begins to see the possible ways that he can be unseated. How dare these commoners question his judgement and everything he's given them? It's so petulant and off the cuff in a way that feels very true to life.

It feels like something that's inherently tied to the specific sense of masculinity that men have been conditioned to feel in the society we live in and how reactive they can feel when questioned or feel like they're being undermined. It's certainly a sense that I've felt and struggled with over the years growing up, and it's something that I can't say that I've seen in one of Disney's films. If the studio can be accused of planting outdated lessons about gender roles in the minds of children, this feels like a welcome change. It's not a lesson that I think should be a taken as "men and rulers are bad!" but more along the lines of "this is the shape and form of a power structure that has flaws."

This is the power of storytelling: the ability to play with these bigger ideas in an engaging way. I think Wish did a pretty good job in flipping some of these long-running ideas, rather than a story that what they might have come up with had they run to some of their older classics for inspiration. That, I think, is notable and interesting.