Wish Dragon, 2021.
Directed by Chris Applehans.
Featuring the voice talents of Jimmy Wong, Constance Wu, John Cho, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Will Yun Lee, Bobby Lee, and Jimmy O. Yang.
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.
It’s impossible not to think about Aladdin while watching Wish Dragon. The memories aren’t jogged from respectable homage either, but rather quite literally lifting a story out of Arabia and placing it into present-day China. There is a lower-class boy, a rich woman, and a genie, sorry, I mean dragon capable of granting three wishes. Just in case the copy and paste weren’t hitting you hard enough, John Cho voices the dragon that clearly has his personality and animation modeled after Robin Williams’iconic portrayal of Genie, but as you can probably expect, comes nowhere close to matching that unprecedented zany energy. Even the character design of the dragon is done so in a way that allows people to use him as, say, a magic carpet ride.
Simultaneously, I also understand there’s nothing wrong with reshaping a classic story for another culture and demographic. The issues with Wish Dragon aren’t only coming from a place of debatable plagiarism, but more the puzzling question that if Sony Animation wants to tell a Chinese version of this story, why not go after Chinese talent to also direct the movie instead of hiring Chris Appelhans (making his directorial debut here after having worked in the art department on both animated films and video games). In their defense, Xiaocao Liu was hired as a dialogue assistant for the script (also done by Chris Applehans). Still, there’s nothing about the movie that speaks to authenticity or more delicate details. It’s pretty much an American interpretation of China through the lens of a story from Arabian Nights, resulting in assembly-line animated storytelling that’s not necessarily doing anything different, meaning all anyone is left doing is thinking about Aladdin for 99 minutes.
Anyway, when trying to shove Aladdin out of the brain, it’s also clear that the story does want to be a fresh take, which makes what’s here that much more frustrating. Wish Dragon is not about a street thief looking to marry a princess. Here, the characters already have a connection to one another, as seen in an opening prologue establishing that Din (Jimmy Wong) and Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) became friends when they were ten years old. There is a relatively effective montage showing them engaging in flying kites while also growing older. Unfortunately, after a few years, Li Na moves with her father to the other side of China, although Din never loses hope that he will see her again, that she will never forget him, and that they will always remain friends.
Flashing forward to the present day, Din is blowing off college classes (but still getting the work done at home) to work as a food delivery server, still dreaming of the day he and Li Na cross paths again. It’s also not that easy to get off the mind considering she has gone on to be a successful fashion model brandished all over luminescent billboards all over town. In other words, they haven’t just grown apart in geographical distance, but also social status.
Somehow (I’m still not clear on how it actually works), Din summons the titular Wish Dragon from a teapot decorated with legacy imagery. Now, chances are you have seen Aladdin and know how this works; the teapot holder receives three wishes of their choosing, albeit limited to forcing other people to do things such as fall in love. Either way, that’s not important as one of the few interesting things about Wish Dragon is that Din is not focused on romantic affection; he wants his friend back. There’s also a chance you know precisely what Din is going to wish for to make his way into an extravagant birthday party for Li Na.
Din naturally makes some enemies by having the magical teapot, frequently chased and attacked by some bland goons (a tall and slender fighter, a short and stocky goofball, and more) enlisted to retrieve the object. This results in Din panicking and wishing for the ability to fight, also transforming him into Spider-Man but without the suit. When that’s not going on, he’s either trying to convince his mother (Constance Wu) that his life is under control and that he’s not crazy on drugs, or annoying Long the Dragon about unorthodox wishes that have nothing to do with permanent riches and empires, something the cynical reptile has gotten used to granting over his 1000 years performing the service across nine different masters so far. It seems that Long has also been locked away for quite some time, so there’s plenty of fish out of water humor to go around, with a taxi traffic jam sequence, in particular, providing a few laughs.
Aside from that, Wish Dragon is mostly low-energy fare that falls short as a comedy and especially short as drama, considering it takes two-thirds of its running time to deviate from the A-to-Z plot points of Aladdin finally. There is some background exposition on Long giving the character a bit more depth and some nuance to the parents of both Din and Li Na, juxtaposed as taking drastically different paths towards providing the things they believe their children need to be happy and prosperous. Sadly, it fails to find chemistry and a magnetic spark between the two reconnecting friends, where the movie most required to carve out its own path. The lackluster animation quality does no favors (colors are weirdly muted and never look as vibrant as they should), but again, that could have been overcome if the story wasn’t so willing to rip off a classic and slap it into Shanghai, calling it a day.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com