What does it mean that “Wish,” the studio’s lavish new animated musical, while it doesn’t exactly showcase “When You Wish Upon a Star,” is a kind of literal-minded theme-park-ready illustration of it? The movie is a folk tale about wishes, and how they’re made upon stars, and how when you have one it makes no difference who you are.
What this means, I think, is that Disney, in the midst of commemorating its 100th anniversary, has become a company so focused on itself that it has now produced a kind of fairy-tale signifier of its own brand. The studio’s cartoons have always borrowed bits and pieces from each other (all those princesses, all those talking animals and singing kitchenware, and what is Simba losing his father in “The Lion King” but the death of Bambi’s mother redux?). But “Wish” self-consciously packs 85 years of animated magic into a portable Disney fable. Does that make it a summation or a pastiche? A movie marbled with pop history or overstuffed with Easter eggs? One that launches the next Disney century or is stuck in the last one? Maybe all of the above.
Since so many of the watchers of Disney cartoons are young children, “Wish” can be experienced, on its own “innocent” terms, as if one had never heard of Disney or seen its movies. On that score it’s a visually pleasing, eminently watchable slice of enchanted product — with a plot that’s both mildly touching and slightly strange.
It’s set in the magic kingdom of Rosas, a tropical island whose residents lead a life of utopian serenity, though for a reason that’s rather suspect: Every one of them has a wish — the thing they’d want most in the world — but they’ve given their wishes to King Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine), the devilishly handsome, outwardly benevolent sorcerer who rules the island, and apparently rules their dreams as well. When you give your wish to Magnifico (he collects them in blue glass bubbles that float atop his palatial tower), you don’t have that wish anymore; you’re free of it, and can no longer even remember what it was. One day, Magnifico may or may not grant it to you (probably not, as we learn). But no matter! Living without your wish, your soul is untroubled. Who wouldn’t want that?
Actually, who would want it? For a while, “Wish” could almost be an allegory of the age of psychotropic meds, or something I seriously doubt the film’s creators intended: a metaphor for life in the era of corporate entertainment (e.g., the kind marketed by Disney), where individual dreams are bought out and replaced by the narcotizing safety of collective fantasy.
The film’s 17-year-old heroine, Asha (Ariana DeBose), is a spunky, sharp-tongued idealist who learned, from her late father, that a wish is something you make upon a star, then carry around with you. It’s the deepest part of who you are. Asha has applied to be the emperor’s new apprentice, and when she arrives for her interview with Magnifico, who’s a coiffed goateed smoothie, she wants to impress him. But she can’t help but question how the whole “Your wish is mine until I decide to give it back to you” thing works. Her bold stance ticks off Magnifico, revealing his true nature. He’s a kind leader until his authority is questioned, at which point his inner authoritarian comes out. We’re talking a ruthless corporate overlord crossed with Maleficent, as well as the first Disney villain who looks like he uses serious hair product.