It is only fitting that the world premiere of Disney’s Wish took place in Los Angeles on November 8, 2023, hours after the end of the longest actors’ union strike in US history. The musical may not be technically innovative, but it does express dissatisfaction with the “soft power” of neoliberalism, which will no longer fool the younger generation, the animated feature’s main audience.
From start to finish, Wish is a psycho-political reflection in a tradition that goes at least as far back as Plato’s Republic. In Plato’s masterpiece, there was exact correspondence between various faculties of the psyche and political-economic classes: the appetitive soul represented by the producers, the spirited soul embodied in the guardians, and the rational soul matching the philosopher king. Although in the Disney feature there are no evident class gradations, the monarch King Magnifico (Chris Pine) watches over the innermost desires and aspirations of the people. An initially benevolent force, he receives the wishes that the subjects of the kingdom Rosas externalize into aethereal spheres only to make sure that nothing bad happens to these stirrings of the soul—that they are not sullied in the messiness of the real world but also that almost none of them get to be realized. Political power receives and restrains the essence of psychic life, museumizing and blocking (indeed, repressing) this very life.
Even in its apparently benevolent manifestation, then, this neoliberal psycho-political project is rather sinister. The predominant concern here is with safety, the safekeeping of dreams, which actually paralyzes them, not to mention neutralizes those that may be subversive. For example, King Magnifico becomes alarmed when he learns about the wish of a 100-year-old man, Sabino (Victor Garber), just because it vaguely relates to wanting to inspire the new generation—the wish the monarch immediately interprets as fomenting a future revolt. In addition, the very few innocuous wishes that are granted attain their realization in lavish multitudinous ceremonies, just as the exceptional cases of upward class mobility appear in intense neoliberal spotlight, giving hope to the vast majority of people, who will never live to see their modest dreams of secure employment, housing, or a livable planet come true.
Forming the more recent psycho-political background for Wish are the theories of Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud. The transfer of desires to the monarch restages the Hobbesian dynamics of sovereignty: each citizen implicitly agrees to hand their capacity for violence over to the sovereign, who, amassing and concentrating all the individual capacities for violence, makes sure that civil peace reigns among. This contract is rendered explicit in the animation, even if it is transposed from the arena of violent action onto the domain of psychic life.
When it comes to the psychological, or the psychoanalytic, connotations of the film, the Platonic embodiment of reason in the philosopher-king mutates into the repressive apparatus, a merciless superego that sucks libidinal energy out of unconscious desires the moment these become conscious, are articulated in words, or externalized. In fact, the philosopher, who is the father of the 17-year-old leader of revolt, Asha (Ariana DeBose), has either died or left the kingdom for good. Far from being a philosopher, King Magnifico is the bureaucrat of desires, rationalizing rather than reasoning and pragmatically upholding the version of “realism” that is most propitious to his hold on power. What Magnifico forgets is that psychic repression, like its political counterpart, requires a tremendous investment of energy to remain effective.
Things begin to unravel when Asha realizes that the seemingly benevolent political order, where everyone is happy knowing that their wishes are kept safe by the powers that be, is built on a lie, on deeply buried frustration of desire, and risk aversion that undermines the very vitality of existence. In line with current figures spearheading the environmental protest movement, such as Greta Thunberg, Asha is not afraid to “speak truth to power” or, literally, to take desires into her own hands in order to dispense them back to their rightful owners. The basis for the revolt is psychic: disappointment with the status quo, hope for a better future which the system cannot deliver on its own terms, and, above all, the injunction to follow your dream (or your star), not to give up on your desire.
While Wish is ready to bid farewell to the neoliberal paradise-turned-hell of the kingdom of Rosas, it does so on markedly neoliberal terms and tacitly defends some of the accursed system’s features. As King Magnifico embarks on the path of evil, he starts feeding on the desires of his subjects, leaving them zombie-like as a result. The premise behind this transformation is that initially neoliberalism was an honest managerial politico-economic system that really kept desires, energies, and labor (in a word, everything that had been externalized) intact, rather than nourish itself on them at the expense of the people. It is as though capital, the non-restituted part of labor-time, were merely an accumulated mass of value kept in the palace vault (or in the bank) without being expropriated and without driving further expropriation of the workers.
The same short-sightedness affects the film’s proposed revolutionary solution. The need for collective action against the tyranny of King Magnifico is blatant: it arises from everyone’s identification with the star, which is, at the same time, the common substance of all that is (namely, stardust) and a singular, brilliant, shining, exceptional being. But, aside from the yearning for liberation, all desires remain privatized, spherically isolated from all others, and after Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral) ascends to the throne (power and wealth stay in the grip of the same family after the revolt!), she becomes a “good” managerial and technocratic ruler, who facilitates the fulfillment of individual wishes in small-group collaborative task forces.
And so, Wish says its half-hearted goodbye to neoliberalism. Things will not change drastically unless we grasp close connections between, on the one hand, good managerial technocracy and evil tyranny, and, on the other hand, the repression of messy desire and the realization of pure individual wishes. Until such a moment “this wish to have something more for us than this,” about which Asha sings, will ring empty.