Contrary to what you may have heard, Sony Pictures Animation’s “Wish Dragon” is definitely not just an “Aladdin” rip-off.
(Disney’s “Aladdin”, by the way, was adapted from the folk tale in “One Thousand and One Nights”, in which Aladdin is said to live in “one of the cities of China”.) For one, this isn’t a love story, but rather about a working-class college student in Shanghai, Din Song (Jimmy Wong), who dreams of rekindling his friendship with a girl he knew from childhood, Li Na Wang (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Not only that, but also this Chinese-American film produced by Jackie Chan is very much self-aware. It catches our attention with “Aladdin” elements and other familiar tropes, and then subverts expectations.
What makes this movie really stand out, however, is the magical performance of John Cho, who voices Long, the titular Wish Dragon. This isn’t a knock on the late Robin Williams, who voiced the Genie in “Aladdin”. It’s about the character of Long (which, by the way, simply means “dragon” in Chinese), who has more depth and a great story arc. After all, Long is the titular character, rather than the sidekick. And as he haughtily — and in a meta reference to the “Aladdin” song “Friend Like Me” — tells Din when he’s first freed from the teapot: “Look, peasant boy. I don’t have time for all your little questions. And I’m not here to be your friend.”
Ultimately, “Wish Dragon” is a tale about friendship.
The movie’s opening scenes show us how Din and Li Na first met when they were kids and became best friends. In fact, the two of them make a promise to be best friends forever, which they seal with a pinky swear.
Unfortunately, the day comes when Li Na has to leave their old neighborhood, because her father Mr. Wang (Will Yun Lee), who is determined to provide a better life for his daughter, has found a better opportunity elsewhere.
“We’re off to a… a better life, and we have to leave this one behind,” he tells Li Na inside the car while she is looking back at the forlorn Din.
Look at where you are
The years pass, but even though they are longer in touch, Din hasn’t forgotten Li Na, who has become a famous endorser of different products.
Even before he received the magic teapot and freed Long, Din was determined that this year, he would somehow find a way to go to Li Na’s birthday party. And now he has a wish.
“Couple of rules I should have mentioned. I can’t do time travel. I can’t kill people. And it pains me to inform you — not really — I can’t make people fall in love with you,” Long tells Din when he’s about to make his wish.
“No, no, no, it’s not like that, Long. She’s my best friend. That’s my wish. I want my friend back,” Din replies.
Long is completely flabbergasted that of all the things Din could wish for in the world, he is just “wasting” it on a friend.
“Wish Dragon” is charming film because of the characters — in the particular the relationship between Din and Long. It’s funny because the aristocratic Long looks down on his master — a mere “peasant boy” — and only cares about finally being freed from having to grant wishes.
So the journey we see in this film is about two friendships — the one that Din is hoping to rekindle with Li Na, and the one Long doesn’t want to have with Din. And how this journey changes them both.
Adding to the fun is that Long is experiencing the modern world for the first time, and is amazed — and at times appalled — by the many changes. Particularly hilarious is when he first encounters a traffic jam. And also how he becomes addicted to shrimp chips.
Din’s overly strict mom Mrs. Song (Constance Wu) also provides both the laughs and the feels — particularly when she says how sorry she is that she wasn’t able to provide a better life for her son. But her presence is in stark contrast to the absence of Li Na’s father Mr. Wang, who is always too busy at work.
While nothing is earthshaking or groundbreaking about “Wish Dragon”, it’s all the wonderful little things that add up and make this movie so enjoyable.
Bringing China to life
As an Asian, I’m also happy to see a film that truly represents Asia, unlike other movies that just treat Asia and Asian characters as aesthetics or window dressing.
In an interview with ANIMATIONWorld, writer and director Chris Appelhans said they really wanted to bring China to life in “Wish Dragon”:
“We wanted the audience in China to see their own world. It’s one of the wonderful things about animation. You get to see a heightened version of real life. So, we wanted to do that for the Chinese audience. We also had a lot of faith that their world, translated in full color and well-designed, could essentially become a fantasy world for a Western audience.”
“Wish Dragon”, which is produced in association with Tencent Pictures, is the directorial debut of the industry veteran Appelhans. It is also the first Sony Pictures Animation film produced by Base Animation, the animation studio that is part of Beijing-based visual effects firm BaseFX.
Watch “Wish Dragon” on Netflix, and enjoy the magic of this movie.
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