Wish Dragon knows it’s telling a story you’ve been told before. When earnest Chinese teenager Din (Jimmy Wong) finds himself in possession of a magical jade teapot and the wish-granting dragon inside, he immediately sets out to make himself worthy of the beautiful object of his affection, Lina (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). “Look kid, I get it, you’re the peasant, she’s the princess, it’s a tale as old as time,” world-weary dragon Long (John Cho) deadpans in between doling out wishes. Even the youngest of viewers could probably recognize they’re watching Aladdin transported to 21st-century China. (The filmmakers have openly acknowledged they pulled from the same folktale as the Disney classic.) But while the story beats are familiar, the modern setting does a lot to inject some new energy into this age-old tale. Wish Dragon isn’t just Arabian Nights with cellphones. It’s a thoughtful if slightly underbaked commentary on hustle culture and social status in the modern era.
Instead of a petty thief, Din is a working-class underdog balancing a college course load and a delivery driver side hustle, all while trying to keep the peace with his no-nonsense single mom (Constance Wu) in their tiny one-bedroom apartment. Din’s long-lost friend Lina isn’t a literal princess, but the daughter of a wealthy businessman who has a thriving career as a famous model. And the film’s most inspired comedic sequence involves 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 Rolexes and sports cars. Even his all-powerful abilities are no match for something as overwhelming as China’s famed traffic problems.
An international co-production between Sony Pictures Animation and several Chinese animation studios (like the recent The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, it got scooped up by Netflix during the pandemic), Wish Dragon shows real care in how it brings to life the details of modern day Shanghai, from gleaming skyscrapers to knockoff luxury stores. First-time director Chris Appelhans blends the funny, textured world-building of a Pixar film with an unbridled earnestness that seems more inspired by the output of Disney proper. If Wish Dragon often feels like it’s repackaging touchstones rather than reinventing the wheel, it at least has fun doing it. As in fellow Sony Animation productions like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania, the character designs are allowed to be a little more eclectic in their shapes and movements than you’d usually find in an on-model Disney entertainment. That includes a bald goon named Pockets (Aaron Yoo) who has the proportions of a human Q-tip and fights almost exclusively with his feet—an absurdist comedic touch that keeps just on the right side of overstaying its welcome.
The biggest selling point here is Din himself. Wish Dragon flips the Aladdin script 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 Wish Dragon’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. Though Din’s relationship with Long never reaches the level of pathos Disney conjured with Aladdin and the Genie, Wish Dragon manages to offer a different riff on the classic “be true to yourself” narrative. In this case, Din doesn’t really need to change his outlook; the rest of the world just needs to bend towards his egalitarian ethos.
Din, with his resolutely sunny disposition, could easily have been a boring or bland character. But Wong, who had a small role in Disney’s live action Mulan, delivers a winningly three-dimensional vocal performance. Though the furry, hot pink Long doesn’t rank amongst our best animated dragons (he’s no match for Awkwafina’s Sisu in this year’s Raya And The Last Dragon), Din easily emerges as one of the most endearing protagonists in recent animation. He’s a character you can laugh at, but one you’re always rooting for, too. To quote the famous cut song from Aladdin, he’ll make you “proud of your boy,” even when the movie around him feels just a touch too familiar.