Thursday, December 7, 2023

Remember Wish? Yes, that happened this year

The worst possible way to celebrate Disney's 100th anniversary was to release a movie as unimaginative as this

From a studio that is so starved of new ideas that it's decided to recycle all its back catalogue, now comes an even more cynical distillation of that formula: take all the typical Disney tropes and glue them together into the Disney-est movie possible. The ne plus Disney of cinema. The ur-Disney. Put all the princesses of this franchise in a blender, strain the mush through a colander, add half a pound of evil sorcerer and half a pound of wish-granting stars, whip it vigorously with the yolks of sixteen dozen hundred Easter eggs, mix thoroughly for the duration of a generic power ballad, sprinkle with every talking animal in every fantasy movie ever, apply an unhealthily viscous layer of treacle, and you'll get the unpalatable, half-baked nothingburger that is Wish.

Once upon a time, Disney fantasy movies used to be an Event. Such timeless achievements as Snow White and Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and Frozen incontestably defined their respective generations. But the magic has run out. It's been barely weeks since the release of Wish in theaters, and it has failed to leave any lasting impression. It's hard to imagine today's kids beginning a habit of rewatching Wish for the next several decades of their lives, the way their parents grew up endlessly rewatching their Disney classic of choice. Wish is not only a disappointing movie, but a mediocre way of celebrating the studio's centennary. After a long legacy of highs and lows that nonetheless survived and came up with new tricks to reinvent itself and often led the way for the entire tradition of animated cinema, Disney seems to have once again fallen into a crisis of creativity. We're living through one of those recurring tragic periods during which Disney productions can't possibly become classics.

It's a pity, because there are a few good qualities to highlight in Wish. The hand-drawn appearance of the backgrounds is stunningly gorgeous, evocative of old fantasy book illustrations. Unfortunately, the art style used for the characters is too simplistic, a cast of basic 3D models indistinguishable from the same basic 3D models you get from less ├╝ber-wealthy studios. The result is that the viewer's attention is continuously attracted more to the background of a scene than to the characters doing the action, which is the opposite of the effect you want to create in an animated movie. It costs extra mental load to try to follow what the heroine is doing when the viewer is too distracted by how much better drawn the wall behind her looks.

In terms of plot, the forced familiarity crosses the line of bothersome and falls right into insulting territory. Wish tries to replicate the Pixar Theory by inventing painfully shoehorned backstories for several recognizable elements of earlier Disney movies, but none of those moments contributes to the actual telling of the story. And when considered on its own, apart from the innumerable links to what we'll apparently have to start calling the Disney Cinematic Universe, the plot of Wish is filled with absurdity. We have a magocracy where the king forbids anyone but himself from practicing magic, but he only uses his magic to capriciously grant one inconsequential wish every month. The price for the kingdom's protection is that everyone must forget what their wish was. Why the founder of this transparently dystopian regime wasn't guillotined before he completed even one year on the throne is never explained.

The collective uselessness of a populace is the necessary subtext of every savior story, but Wish doesn't bother trying to hide it. The evil of the king's hoarding of magical gifts and tampering with the people's memories is so bleedingly obvious that our heroine figures it out within minutes of talking to him, but the viewer is supposed to believe that in decades of unopposed rule she's been the first to raise any objection. By adopting a Great (Wo)Man Theory of History, Wish squanders the abundant symbolic potential of a setting where citizens effectively delegate their will to a head of government who is then charged with executing the will entrusted to him. The movie's inexplicably underutilized metaphor for representative democracy could have been further developed into a plot with urgent relevance to its historic moment. We are in the middle of an existential crisis for democratic systems, instigated by unaccountable strongmen with brazenfaced authoritarian aspirations. With a more consistent script, Wish could have had the perfect opportunity to introduce children to the principle of the consent of the governed, which wouldn't really be an unprecedented move for Disney if you remember how Zootopia and Elemental talked about racial prejudice and Tangled and Encanto talked about family abuse.

Instead of relying on human effort, our heroine depends on a magical star whose influence makes animals talk and sing. In other words, Wish is arguing that the way out of this dystopia is the Disneyfication of the world. That's a bleak position, especially coming from a movie that dedicates two whole songs to the "we are all made of the same stardust" ethos, but it's fully consistent with Disney's goals of total cultural phagocytosis. Much in the vein of other nostalgitic embarrassments like Space Jam: A New Legacy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Jurassic World: Dominion, Wish is not a movie that tells a story. It's a self-congratulatory pat in the back by a studio that is too afraid to venture outside the tried and true. If all that Disney has to show for itself as the culmination of a century of artistic evolution is a timid rehash of past glories, the studio's going to need to pray to a star if it intends to keep making history for another century.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.