Synopsis – Determined teen Din is longing to reconnect with his childhood best friend when he meets a wish-granting dragon who shows him the magic of possibilities.
My Take – Following the stupendous acclaim the recent The Mitchells Vs. The Machines received, Netflix has now released (like five days ago) the second of three Sony Pictures Animation releases (the next being Vivo), rights they scooped up last year due to the ongoing pandemic.
However, unlike the Mike Rianda directed feature, which drew appreciation for its animated style and energy, making it easily one of the best films to release this year, this directorial debut of children’s book author and illustrator Chris Appelhans is far from being the next masterpiece, but surprisingly, it doesn’t even seem to be trying to be and seems content with that.
Based on the exact same Chinese fable that inspired the classic tale of Aladdin (1992), this Netflix release is in fact more interested in being a light, colorful romp that just wants to offer some good laughs and provide a good time, especially for the young ones. Despite being blend in the familiar, funny, textured world-building of a Pixar film with an unbridled earnestness of a Disney output, here, director Appelhans manages to tell an updated, modern fantasy story with unique and specific humor.
Sure, a lot of the plot elements feel overly familiar, where it can be simply tagged as Aladdin in Shanghai, and without songs, but in the few moments where the film transcends those trappings, it’s a fun, memorable entertainer. At times that is enough.
Set in modern China, the story follows Din (voice of Jimmy Wong), a 19 years old working-class underdog balancing college course load and a delivery driver side hustle, all while trying to keep the peace with his no-nonsense single mom (voice of Constance Wu) in their tiny one-bedroom apartment. However, his goal in life is not even close to the life his mother dreams for him. Ten years ago, Din connected with Li Na and became fast friends over their mutual love of dragons. However, one day Li Na had to move away, leaving a devastated Din with a promise to find his way to her someday.
However, things are not that simple, as Li Na (voice of Natasha Liu Bordizzo) is now the daughter of a wealthy businessman, Mr. Wang (voice of Will Yun Lee), and has a thriving career as a famous model. And though their lives couldn’t be any more different, Din still wants to keep his promise. In his attempt to rekindle their relationship, Din even sets up a special evening and even gets her a gift in the form of a tea pot which he received from a strange man (voice of Ronny Chieng). But unbeknownst to him, the pot contains a wish dragon named Long (voice of John Cho) that’s been trapped in there for 1000s of years.
Being that Din releases him, he grants him 3 wishes. But in the process of releasing Long, he also unleashes a bit of chaos on himself. As it turns out, a few people know about Long, especially three mysterious henchmen, Pockets (voice of Aaron Yoo), Short Goon (voice of Jimmy O. Yang) and Tall Goon (voice of Bobby Lee), who are determined to steal the teapot for the shady figure they work for, who wants to use Long’s wishes for his own selfish gains.
While the story absolutely does sound all too familiar, and the plot twists are drenched in predictability, the film thankfully manages to have any identity of its own mainly as the style and tone are completely different from the classic Arabian tale. For starters, this is a modern take on the Chinese fable, being set in present day Shanghai. Also, rather than looking for love, Din is wishing for friendship.
But most importantly, the film flips the familiar tale by making Din the earnest optimist who thinks friendship matters more than class or status, while Long is the cynic who believes money can solve everything. Din’s positivity brings a wonderful sense of buoyancy to the first half of the film, and it allows the film’s third act to tread into some darker territory as he learns that the realities of adulthood are more complicated than the simple truths of childhood.
And although Long starts out with a smart-talking sidekick shtick that’s reminiscent of Aladdin’s Genie, it becomes quickly evident that he isn’t just a sassy companion, but a deeply flawed and selfish character who goes on his own journey of discovery. In fact, he gets more intense character evolution than Din, who suffers a few moments of insecurity, but remains a wide-eyed, idealistic young man. Long, however, grows from a cynic into someone who learns the value of friendship and human connection.
Sure, it’s a pretty standard lesson when it comes to family-friendly films, but making it the evolution of the comic relief instead of the main character gives the film an interesting edge.
However, the best aspect of the film is the humor, which mostly comes from Long struggling to adjust to the advances of modern technology after a thousand-year stint in his teapot. He’s used to granting wishes that involve armies and palaces, not Rolex and a sports car with a butler. Even his all-powerful abilities are no match for something as overwhelming as China’s famed traffic problems. Another hilarious scene is when Din inadvertently wishes to be able to fight, granting him martial arts abilities that make for some low-stakes action sequences and movement, as his limbs involuntarily fly out to kick an adversary or catch a vase from falling.
Despite their budget constraints, the animation is gorgeous and excellently shows the disparity between the affluent and the rest of the population in modern-day Shanghai.
Voice talent wise, Jimmy Wong, Constance Wu, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Will Yun Lee, Ronny Chieng, Aaron Yoo, Jimmy O. Yang and Bobby Lee bring in incredible turns, however, it is John Cho’s performance as Long that gives the film its life. Here, Cho gives the character a great level of sass to counter Din’s innocence, which makes for some of the film’s funniest moments, even if they can’t hold a candle to Robin Williams’ Genie. On the whole, ‘Wish Dragon’ is a simple, vibrant and fun animated adventure that manages to be enjoyable despite its predictable story and theme.
Directed – Chris Appelhans
Rated – PG
Run Time – 98 minutes