A young man — poor in money but pure in heart — comes across a small teapot. A teapot that holds a kooky yet charming magical wish-granting dragon. Despite his financial status, the young man uses wishes not to enrich himself. But to gain favour with a beautiful young woman that’s way out of his tax bracket. Some princely deception, magical hijinks, and bad guy chase later, our heroes learn that life is more than power, fame, and riches.
To no one’s surprise, Wish Dragon is an animated film with an elevator pitch almost identical to Disney’s film Aladdin. Wish Dragon doesn’t seem to shy away from the comparison. The movie stars Jimmy Wong as Din, the young man with a heart of gold. Along with the Wish Dragon (John Cho in English, Jackie Chan in Mandarin) have the same comedic tone as Aladdin’s Genie. But it’s so much more than the modern-day Aladdin it appears to be.
Our protagonist Din is a young man living up to the role of dutiful son. He excels at school and loves his mother. And despite his poor upbringing, he has no great desires for wealth or fame. He knows there’s more to life than making money to get out of the boonies. But isn’t sure what it is. Li Na is a young model who wants for nothing with a wealthy but distant father. But like Din, Li Na is unsatisfied with life. She knows there’s more to it than the glitz and glam of high society. Our two heroes struggle with the very common issue of having goals in life outside of familial expectations.
Early in Wish Dragon, audiences get to see a wonderful display of childhood friendship. The type of earnest, honest joy that you can only find between kids who have no sense of societal obligation or pressure. Like many childhood friendships, Din and Li Na lose each other when one family moves away. Emails and smartphones have shrunk the distance between people never before. But no amount of technology can bridge the gap someone feels when two friends have a significant financial divide (or a new relationship status). Young adults eventually learn that friendships evolve and end. In real life, we don’t have magical wish-granting dragons to help mend those bridges.
Speaking of which, our main characters find balance in our lovable yet cynical dragon, Long. Who’s been stuck inside a teapot since the Qing dynasty. Much of his screen time is him hilariously marvelling at today’s technological wonders and culinary delights: things like cell phones and shrimp chips. My favourite scene, in particular, involves Long’s education in the frustration and inconvenience of bumper-to-bumper traffic. The film’s modern-day setting provides a fresh spin on this often told fairy tale. Wish Dragon gives Long some much-needed agency missing from other lovable anthropomorphic mythical beings without giving anything away.
First-time director Chris Appelhans is at the helm for Wish Dragon. Joining him is a new Chinese animation studio, Base Media. However, Appelhans is no stranger to animation. His art credits include hits like Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Princess and the Frog. You can tell he’s no rookie; the film is stylish, smooth, and has a level of production polish that new studio films sometimes lack. Hong Kong megastar Jackie Chan is not only the voice of Long in Mandarin but also a producer. You can see his influence in Wish Dragon’s excellent physical comedy and dynamic animation.
Modern moviegoers are no strangers to cookie-cutter fairy tale cartoons. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by Wish Dragon’s joy and whimsy. Each character is given proper depth and growth. The film’s energy and humour more than makeup for its lack of plot originality. In fact, if you ignore the unoriginal plot, the movie feels like it should open with a lamp bouncing on a ball. It’s an excellent showing for a studio’s first film and it’s a clear upgrade over star-studded vehicles that use stunt casting to lure audiences. Wish Dragon is a culturally appropriate film full of heart and joy. I wish we had more like it.
Wish Dragon is out now and available on Netflix, so be sure to tune in and tell us what you thought of it!