***Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Wish.***

Disney’s hope for a celebratory 100th-anniversary victory lap with its feature release Wish in 2023 ended up backfiring. Critical reviews were hardly glowing, and the film managed to make little more than $250 million worldwide in its theatrical release, a paltry sum given its budget and marketing. It then languished unavailable for months before finally arriving on DVD and Disney Plus on April 3.

Like (apparently) most people, I missed the theatrical run and only recently caught it. Sometimes, small-screen release is a chance for audiences to reevaluate films that did poorly in their initial release, as happened with Disney’s earlier Encanto, a film I certainly came to enjoy. I had a similar experience watching Moana for the first time (though that one had no struggles at the box office). Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Wish, which, despite some good voice talent and lovely animation, I find to be deservedly panned. However, my concerns with the film extend beyond the typical critical attacks and extend to some of the philosophical implications that lie beneath the surface (if not very far beneath).

The implications of Wish’s immanent frame prove to be decidedly Marxist in character.

There are several reasons that movie critics appear to have disliked Wish. The Direct’s Klein Felt tallies up four major trajectories: 1) An over-emphasis on Disney Easter eggs; 2) A by-the-numbers villain; 3) Forgettable songs; and 4) No real character arc for its protagonist. I find these somewhat valid, though not so significant as one might expect. The Easter eggs vary between contrived and clever, but I didn’t consider most of them overly obtrusive. The villain has an interesting backstory that sets him apart from many recent Disney bad guys, though that personal history gets unfortunately neglected as he descends into worse shades of wickedness. Some of the songs are catchy, if nowhere near the adroitness of lyricists like Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. And the character’s arc? I have some sympathy for it, but also find it deeply woven into the movie’s problematic thematic concerns.

What are those concerns? To put it in stark terms, Wish presents a fundamentally materialist Marxist world. I do not deploy those terms in a flippant or incendiary way, tossing “-isms” in some facile cultural warrior crusade. Rather, these characterizations become impossible to ignore as one observes the unfolding of Wish’s plot. Indeed, in regard to integration of plot and theme, Wish is actually a rather coherent, even at times ingenious, work. Except that the worldview it is promoting is at odds with the Disney nostalgia it wants to evoke—and, of course, deeply at odds with certain core Christian understandings of the world (and the role of fairy tales).

“This Wish”

Wish is set in the mythical city of Rosas, established by the magician-king Magnifico, who purports to protect his people from harm. Magnifico collects the wishes of citizens as they reach age 18, eventually granting some wishes during designated events. Our protagonist is Asha, a prospective understudy to Magnifico, who recoils when she learns that the king hoards the wishes and will secretly refuse to grant any that he considers bad for the social fabric of Rosas. Forced to abandon her would-be work for Magnifico, along with her dream of seeing her grandfather’s wish come true, she stumbles on a pudgy and mischievous little Star, who in his descent has granted her some magic of her own. This leads her into a rebellion against Magnifico, whose powers have grown steadily stronger and darker as he begins ingesting the people’s wishes.

Wish is an original storyline but one that has been ostensibly designed to hark back to many signature Disney moments and themes.  Several jokes and sight gags obviously invoke classic Disney films on a metafictional level, as do certain narrative contrivances, such as the way Asha’s set of friends deliberately mirrors Snow White’s seven dwarfs.  But the most obvious allusion is built into the title, a callback to Pinocchio’s “When You Wish upon a Star,” which has since become the de facto Disney anthem, most obviously its opening lines:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

The connection of stars to wishes is made explicitly by Asha in the chorus to her  song “This Wish”:

So I look up at the stars to guide me
And throw caution to every warning sign
If knowing what it could be is what drives me
Then let me be the first to stand in line
So I make this wish
To have something more for us than this
So I make this wish
To have something more for us than this

Beyond the vexing question of what exactly it means to “throw caution to every warning sign,” the song reinforces the connection between wishing and looking to the stars. In this case, however, we are talking about plural “stars,” whose role is “to guide me”; and similarly, the wish isn’t for Asha herself but for “us,” her family specifically and, more broadly, the people of Rosas.

In one sense, then, the film may be pushing back against the individualism that animates some other Disney “follow your dreams” narratives like Pinocchio or the potentially myopic love stories that may lurk in some of the princess tales. Asha’s desire to do what’s best for her family and her community represents a commendable concern with wishes that transcends raw self-interest.

“I’m a Star”

Unfortunately, that is about as much transcendence as we get from Wish. Her longings are answered by the arrival of the bouncy, boisterous Star, who helps catalyze her own magic powers. Star is a far cry from any divine celestial figure, or even from a reverend being like Ramandu or his daughter in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Still, one may argue, the very fact that Star is sentient at all may be a pushback against the disenchanted materialism of our secular age in which “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

Alas, it is just at this point that Disney collapses into that most insipid of modern pseudo-transcendent tropes and tips its hand to its fundamental disenchantment. Under the influence of Star, the plants and animals begin bursting out in musical harmony, singing a tune called—you guessed it—“I’m a Star.”

Channeling their inner Moby, the surrounding plants and animals celebrate their celestial material causes in scientific language that feels rather jarringly anachronistic;

Have you ever wondered why you look up at the sky for answers?
Or why flowers in the wind are effortless and eloquent dancers?
What forms the rings in the trees? Turns a pine from a seed?
What’s passed down generationally, to you? (And to me?)
And why our eyes all look like microscopic galaxies?
Have you ever wondered why you look up at the sky for answers?

Well, you don’t have to look too hard
We’re here for all your question marks
If you’re try’na figure out just who you are
Don’t look far
In the sky, and your front yard
In your heart and in your scars
If you really wanna know just who you are
You’re a star (yes!)

Boom! Did we just blow your mind? Uh-huh
Well, I’ve known the entire time
When it comes to the universe we’re all shareholders
Get that through your system (Solar!)
See we’re all just little nebulae in a nursery
From supernovas now we’ve grown into our history
We’re taking why’s right out of mystery, closure
Now we’re taking in
All the star exposure!

We eat the leaves and they eat the sun
See that’s where all the balls of gas come from
Hey, you still look like you’re hanging on by a strand
But if you just see the mushrooms then you’ll understand
So your dust, is my dust?
Fantastic!
Huh!

There is, of course, a basis in astrophysics for asserting that all earthly matter can be traced back to stars at some point in its prehistory. Perhaps the best-known early formulation of this understanding as a source of comfort or wonder came from Carl Sagan, who said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”

Not insignificantly, this proclamation was made in his 1980s documentary Cosmos, in which the famously atheist scientist also maintained, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Sagan’s “star stuff” line is functionally a way of framing Platonic or religious transcendence into a decidedly immanent materialistic perspective. It retains the aspirational direction toward the heavens—and an emphasis on unity—without the troublesome metaphysics of a spiritual dimension.

In theory, one could read Wish’s articulation here as more pantheistic, with an apparently sentient universe joining in chorus. Yet the language of the song retains Sagan’s materialism. Despite the informal diction, “I’m a Star” tosses out plenty of scientific jargon. The plants and animals (and Star) are personified in classic Disney fashion, but the basis for unity (“your dust is my dust”) is physical rather than spiritual.

“Knowing What I Know Now”

The implications of Wish’s immanent frame prove to be decidedly Marxist in character. Marx’s best-known line on the subject of religion comes from his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, in which he contends, “Die Religion . . . ist das Opium des Volkes,” often translated as “the opiate of the masses.” Not all Christians, in his day or now, have regarded his philosophy as antithetical to faith, and Marx may be critiquing primarily the stultifying Protestantism of his experience.

Even so, it would not be unfair to say that from Marx himself down the line, many if not most adherents assume philosophical materialism, and this forms the basis for their impetus to social agitation. Belief in a lost paradise and a future salvation may prompt the faithful to kick the can of social action down the road, but when the only eschatology is the immanent one of this world, the conscientious person should feel impelled to provoke positive revolution in the face of injustice.

So the triumph of Asha and her fellow revolutionaries—and thus the happily-ever-after of Wish itself—is finally an empty one.

And this is precisely what happens in Wish. Asha’s encounter with the sentient natural chorus follows immediately on the heels of her disillusionment with the cultish magician Magnifico, and the end result, after a few more frustrations, is to transform her and her friends—and even Magnifico’s wife—into a coterie of revolutionaries. This is proclaimed in no uncertain terms during Asha’s song “Knowing What I Know Now.” Here, she makes the case to her friends that Magnifico is a tyrant and that revolution is the answer. The song moves from her individual understanding to an impassioned plea for cooperative social action, as the “I” becomes “we”:

You’ve been deceived
Magnifico is not the man he claims to be
He’s more vicious than I could have ever comprehended
When I made a wish and Star came down
This is not what I expected or intended
But now that it’s happened, I don’t regret it
’Cause now I’ve seen
Him show his true colors, in shades of green
Saying that your wishes aren’t safe because of me and
That’s a lie, lie, lie, lie
And I, I know I can’t do this on my own and

If it’s not us, then who and when?
If we don’t fight, he knows he wins
Not allowed
Knowing what I know now
The lengths he’ll go there’s no amount
I won’t sit back watch this play out
That’s my vow
Knowing what I know now

In the resulting sequence, Asha gathers not just her circle of friends but the villagers of Rosas as a whole into the town square to face off against Magnifico. Though initially unsuccessful, the collective force of the people’s wish for freedom causes Magnifico’s magic to backfire, ultimately trapping him.

The film ends with its villain imprisoned by his magic, while his wife becomes the benevolent ruler and Asha taking on the role of magician. Together, they promise a realm in which people can make their wishes come true on their own, without the need for stars (Star returns to the sky, having equipped Asha down below).

This is the fundamental utopian materialist Marxist vision of Wish. All life is connected because of its material cause—stars represent no kind of heavenly transcendence, because they have been within us all along. And thus, looking up to the heavens for guidance or help is unnecessary—with the proper sociopolitical environment, we can transform our immanent world into a place of flourishing for everyone.

Of course, there is much to commend about a desire to create a more just society now. Historically, the Judeo-Christian tradition has not necessarily advocated the extreme societal passivity that Marx (or at least Marxism) may ascribe to it.  From Old Testament prophets to Jesus himself, the Bible furnishes countless instances of godly men and women who declaim against social injustice, and such declamations have long been a part of the Christian tradition—including among evangelicals, for whom activism is often regarded as a key pillar.

But this impetus in Christianity always emerged from an understanding that such action was required precisely because justice was a transcendent virtue that has its origins in the very nature of God’s character. And accompanying that understanding was also a recognition that until Christ’s eschatological return and judgment, we must be circumspect about just how much good societal transformation we can expect. When Jesus asserts, “The poor you will always have with you,” this is not license to throw up our hands and ignore injustice; but it does acknowledge that individual, corporate, and demonic sin will always hinder our efforts in this age.

That is why in its resolution Wish becomes effectively an anti-fairy-tale. While there is certainly a morally propaedeutic element to fairy tale narratives, the classic märchen presented characterizations of idealized virtue, whether in the longsuffering youngest child or the heroic handsome prince. And in many ways, this fit because of an implicit connection between the fairy tale story and the Christian story. The gospel is, at its core, a fairy tale narrative, in which the oppressed prince destroys the dragon to rescue his bride and live happily ever after. We are called to imitate Christ the prince in right action but always with the underlying knowledge that we cannot rescue ourselves and that our eucatastrophic hope proceeds from the reality of an infinite and loving God.

G. K. Chesterton gestured toward this reality in his frequently misquoted essay “The Red Angel”:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

This passage is paraphrased (most famously by Neil Gaiman) to read, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” But Gaiman’s version (being, like Wish, a modern version) changes the locus of Chesterton’s observation. For Wish and for Gaiman, the fairy tale narrative empowers the readers who identify with and emulate the hero(ine)s of the stories (like Asha or Gaiman’s Coraline).

But that isn’t the point of Chesterton’s passage: the consolation of the fairy tale, according to him, isn’t primarily the child’s agency but the knowledge “that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” Early Disney films—the ones Wish is ostensibly paying tribute to—often implicitly recognized this. It’s not accidental that Sleeping Beauty’s villain Maleficent can snarl at Philip, “Now shall you deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!”—nor is it accidental that Prince Philip slays the evil dragon queen.

Yet in the materialist universe of Wish, this isn’t the case. There is no hint of a transcendent God to empower enemies of the darkness and the fear. When stars are just cosmic dust, how can we say that the darkness has a limit? Our best societal efforts must eventually collapse back into that eternal night. And even what we do achieve will never be as healthy or lovely as Disney’s Rosas.

So the triumph of Asha and her fellow revolutionaries—and thus the happily-ever-after of Wish itself—is finally an empty one. The cost of democratizing wishes in this reality is to lose sight of any further reality and thus to disrupt the very nature of the fairy tale story. In watching this 100th-anniversary Disney tribute, one cannot help but Wish for more.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *