Why Disney’s “Wish” Bombed At The Box Office

Over Thanksgiving week, Disney released its 62nd animated feature film for the company’s centennial, "Wish." But instead of making dreams come true, "Wish" is Disney’s first critical and box office bomb in decades.

By Jillian Schroeder5 min read
disney wish asha

From beloved classics like Tangled or Frozen to more recent hits like Encanto, the last decade has felt like a resurgence of classic Disney storytelling. Thanksgiving is a great time to go to the movies with family, so Disney probably felt assured of success when it released Wish over the Thanksgiving week.

Using the voice talents of recent Oscar-winner Ariana Debose (West Side Story) and fan-favorite Chris Pine (Wonder Woman, Princess Diaries 2), the official Disney website describes the film’s plot: “Asha, a sharp-witted idealist, makes a wish so powerful that it is answered by a cosmic force – a little ball of boundless energy called Star.” Asha fights to save Star from the wicked and magical King Magnifico and to liberate the wishes Magnifico has kept locked away in his castle.

But for the first time in decades, audiences really aren’t happy with Disney’s latest animated heroine. Wish is currently rated rotten by critics, at 50% on RottenTomatoes – the first time since Chicken Little’s release in 2005 when a Disney animated film has not scored a fresh rating. The film also underperformed at the box office, and fans have taken to the internet to express that they aren’t happy.

Did Wish deserve to fail critically and commercially? And what does its failure tell us about the enduring appeal of Disney’s classic princesses?

*Spoilers ahead*

Wish Tries To Celebrate Disney’s Classics

If intentions paved the way to success, then Wish would be on its way to greatness. The film is stuffed with Easter Eggs from other Disney classic films. During the animals' number, “I’m a Star,” the singing animals address the stag in their midst as Bambi, while other references to The Adventures of Robin Hood and Pocahontas are more obscurely referenced through character placement. A girl who wishes to fly is introduced to a green-clad inventor named Peter. It’s as if someone sprinkled Disney Easter eggs like pixie dust over the entire script. 


Wish is particularly inspired by Disney’s first great feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “I’m a Star” takes place in the woods, as Asha is interacting with a host of woodland creatures – similar to Snow White’s own exhortation to “Whistle While You Work” with her new animal friends. Asha and her friends together make a group of seven, who then go on to help an adult woman (King Magnifico’s loving wife, Queen Amaya). It’s even hinted at the end of the film that Magnifico may become the “Mirror, Mirror on the wall,” since his vanity traps him inside a mirror that is locked in the dungeon.

This similarity to Snow White creates an unintended reference for the film, however, and this one doesn’t do Wish any favors. Reference after reference reminds us of the original Snow White, but it also reminds us that Disney is currently in post-production of a contentious live-action remake. After a year of poorly performing sequels and bad publicity, we can’t help but wonder if the Disney company is struggling to stay true to Walt Disney’s vision.

Uncompelling Characters and a Disjointed Tone: Why Wish Doesn’t Work

While some might blame Wish’s failure on timing and bad luck – it released immediately after the long-awaited Hunger Games prequel A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – I think that the problem with Wish starts in the story itself. The film has a disjointed tone and never really succeeds in making us care about the characters. 


The film’s heroine, Asha, struggles to settle into a personality throughout the film and often feels like a poor imitation of Encanto’s Mirabel. She’s devoted to her family and to the country of Rosas, but she doesn’t actually seem to have anything wrong with her except maybe a lack of confidence. But even that doesn’t quite track, since Asha spends the whole movie confidently defying what authorities tell her to do. Asha is a confused melting pot of character traits, which leaves her with no defining characteristics at all. 

It’s not just the lack of character development, though – Wish can’t really settle on a tone either. It begins lightheartedly with a sympathetic villain in King Magnifico, whose tragic past explains his controlling nature. This leads us to expect that he will be reformed over the course of the film. But halfway through the story, King Magnifico becomes more like Aladdin’s Jafar as he turns to dark magic, and in the end, Magnifico is locked away with no redemption. This confuses the overall tone of the film, since the audience can’t decide whether we should be happy or sad that Magnifico never gets a second chance to do the right thing. Wish tries to have the best of both worlds: a villain to take all the culpability while still having a backstory to explain his villainy.


Some of this would be forgivable with a moving ending or even an original message. But Wish opts for the ultimate cop-out ending: Asha discovers that “we’re all stars” and that we just need to acknowledge our inner wish (which sounds suspiciously like finding your “inner truth”) in order to outshine and overpower the forces of evil. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this storyline has outlived its time. If the solution to all of our problems is staying true to our deepest desire – nothing more or less – then there isn’t really a need to grow or develop. That’s not a world I, for one, wish to live in.

Disney’s penchant for pushing its own agenda makes this storyline subject to some pretty dark interpretations. It’s not hard to see the woke oppressor vs. oppressed narrative in King Magnifico’s treatment of the citizens of Rosas and Asha’s subsequent rebellion. Many religious viewers are even pointing out the ways that Wish seems to be expressing an explicitly anti-God message. It may be sugarcoated in music and flashing animated colors, but lyrics like “We are our own origin story…If you’re tryna figure out just who you are / You’re a star” still feel like a pointed agenda. 

The Songs in Wish Are a Hot Mess

The most successful Disney films always have catchy songs, united by some common metaphor or theme. The musical genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda guided Moana to rediscover her identity through her ancestral heritage, and the EGOT-winning duo of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez brought families closer together in their songs for Frozen and Coco. After this feast of superb musicality that Disney films have shown in the last decade, the songs in Wish are a letdown. Composers Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice are clearly trying to live up to the expectations, but each song feels like a would-be hit created solely because Disney movies are supposed to have songs.


“At All Costs” plays early on in the film, during Asha’s interview with King Magnifico to serve as his apprentice. It’s ostensibly a song about keeping the wishes locked inside the castle safe, but the wishes are strangely never even mentioned in the song. “I wanna / Promise as one does / I, I will protect you at all costs / Keep you safe here in my arms / I, I will protect you at all costs,” sings first Magnifico and then Asha, and then together in a weird duet which sounds like a promise between lovers.

Even the film’s signature heroine song, “This Wish,” contains lyrics that just don’t make sense. “So I look up at the stars to guide me / and throw caution to every warning sign,” sings Asha as she wishes upon a falling star. This incorrect use of the phrase “throw caution to the wind” may have seemed poetic in song, but it doesn’t actually mean anything in English, and people are really confused.

Stylistically, many of the songs in the score sound as if they were written for Selena Gomez, a frequent collaborator of Wish’s composer Julia Michaels. The catchiest song on the soundtrack, “Knowing What I Know Now,” illustrates this similarity the best. Its use of word repetition is reminiscent of Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me,” and the melody Debose’s character sings often sounds like Gomez’s vocal signature.

Why We Love (and Need) the Disney Princess

The failure of Wish at the box office reveals a growing disconnect between the Disney entertainment machine and its target audiences. Embracing formulaic plots and character arcs over genuine feeling and reliable storytelling, the Disney films we’ve seen so far in 2023 – both animated and Marvel comic book – are beginning to feel more like math equations for a profit than stories that speak to the deepest desires of the human experience.

It’s important that we not see the failure of Disney’s Wish as some kind of “princess fatigue” at the box office. If people are weary of superheroes, aren’t they tired of princesses too? This attitude ignores an important fact: The Disney princess is an archetype, not a stereotype. Her enduring popularity through the years is just one proof that we don’t only want the Disney princess – we need her. 

For decades, Disney princesses and the fairy tales they inhabit have been igniting the imaginations of girls and the women they become. Like the voiceless Ariel, the Disney princess is strongest in her vulnerability. Like Snow White, her strength is in her generosity. Like Rapunzel, she heals brokenness with her creativity. If there are similarities in the narratives, it is because they are driven by the same deep desires embedded in every woman’s heart. 

Closing Thoughts

Between its tonal inconsistencies and half-baked characters, Disney’s new film Wish feels more like a rough draft than a finished work of art. Audiences who go into this movie wishing for an engaging and edifying evening out will, sadly, not have their wish granted.

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