Wish Dragon was released on Netflix in June of 2021, as the latest example in the recent trend of American-Chinese co-produced animated films. Some recent films of this burgeoning sub-genre include 2019’s Abominable and 2020’s Over the Moon, both by China’s Pearl Studio (with the former being co-produced by Dreamworks and the latter by Netflix itself). Wish Dragon, however, is a joint venture between Sony Pictures Animation and Beijing Sparkle Roll Media Corporation. Though Wish Dragon’s story and humor eventually pick up before the end, it lacks the heart of the aforementioned films, and it emulates Disney’s Aladdin so strongly it robs itself of some identity.
I suppose, to be fair, Over the Moon also had some overfamiliar narrative beats of its own. But that film made up for it by having some genuinely moving emotional moments, eye-popping visuals, and a terrific soundtrack. Wish Dragon doesn’t have those luxuries to wash away its shortcomings. And it isn’t simply overfamiliar in a general sense, but Wish Dragon’s overly similar elements to a specific movie are a bigger issue, as it makes comparisons to the movie it’s mimicking unavoidable.
Wish Dragon is basically Disney’s Aladdin, only set in modern day Shanghai instead of the Middle East of centuries past, and with a dragon in place of a genie. There’s even a scene where the dragon explains the shortlist of wishes that he isn’t allowed to grant, which feels dangerously close to what Robin Williams’ Genie told Aladdin back in 1992. I guess you could do worse than copying one of Disney’s most beloved animated films, but Wish Dragon doesn’t just wear its inspiration on its sleeve, it’s flaunting it on a bodysuit.
The main character here is Din (Jimmy Wong), a working class college student who lives in the same cramped apartment he grew up in with his mother (Constance Wu). When Din was younger, he was best friends with a girl named Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who moved away ten years ago once her father became a successful businessman, with Li Na now living a lavish life as a model. Din wants nothing more than to reunite with his childhood friend.
I have to admit, I actually find that character motivation to be something different. Din’s relationship with Li Na is only quasi-romantic at most, and it’s more about him wanting to reunite with his childhood friend than it is him wanting to “get the girl.” So that’s something original, at any rate.
Li Na’s birthday is coming up, and Din sees this as the opportunity to be reunited with her. He’s been skipping classes to work for a food delivery app, saving up money to buy a suit and gain access to her high class social event of a birthday party. One of Din’s customers turns out to be a strange old man living in a dilapidated house who claims to be a god (Ronny Chieng) . The old man tells Din that he is “pure of heart” and pays for his order with a jade teapot. That same night (the night before Li Na’s birthday), Din discovers that the teapot contains a magical wish dragon named Long (John Cho).
Long claims that Din is his tenth and final master, and after he grants the boy three wishes, he can finally ascend to heaven. But before Din can make a wish, a trio of hired goons – lead by a man called ‘Pockets’ (Aaron Yoo) – who have been hunting for the teapot, attempt to steal it from Din. Din inadvertently wishes that he could fight, which enables him to escape the bandits for the time being, as well as using his first wish.
From there, Din realizes that Long’s magic could be his ticket to reuniting him with Li Na, though he and the dragon have differing views as to how to go about that: Din thinks he needs to wish for just enough to gain access to Li Na’s party, while the dragon insists he do the same thing as his previous nine masters and just wish for unfathomable wealth. Here the human is more innocent while the dragon is cynical, so it’s like an inverse Raya and the Last Dragon dynamic.
The setup to the movie is fine, though I have to stress again that its similarities to Aladdin are so strong they can become distracting. You probably guessed already that Din’s second wish is the modern day equivalent of becoming a prince (a fancy suit instead of a princely robe, a hot car in place of an elephant, and Long disguises as a human chauffeur, as opposed to the grand marshal of a parade). But it can still be a fun ride, and the characters are likable enough.
On the downside of things, I think the animation of Wish Dragon is serviceable, but for a big budget, CG animated film, you’d certainly expect better. The art direction and character designs are nothing to write home about (I do like that they made the dragon pink, however. What other color could possibly standout as much?). Din in particular has an unfortunately bland character design. I get that maybe he’s not supposed to look like anyone special, to contrast with the beautiful Li Na, but it is possible to make a character look intentionally bland, but still have a memorable character design. And well, I don’t think Wish Dragon accomplished that with Din. Though I give the film credit for the fun idea of its villain Pockets who, true to his name, always has his hands in his pockets, and does everything with his feet instead (no matter how much it may defy physics).
The humor may try the patience of some older audiences. While Wish Dragon does have some jokes that land, most of them happen in the later parts of the movie. For much of the film leading up to that, the humor leans to the juvenile side of things, and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I suppose it’s better to end strong than it is to start strong and run out of steam. And by the end of things, Wish Dragon did win me over, both in humor and in story (I also feel that I’m appreciating the film more as I write this).
Wish Dragon isn’t going to go down as an animated classic, and making its inspiration from Disney’s Aladdin even a little less obvious would have benefitted it greatly. But hey, I started out rolling my eyes at the movie, only to find myself smiling because of it later on. That counts for something, right?