Stop if you’ve heard this one before: a down-on-his-luck young man who wants to connect with a beautiful rich girl finds a magic item that unleashes a powerful wish-granting being. He decides to use a wish to make himself appear wealthy to impress her. Meanwhile, a mysterious villain wishes to control the wish-granter for their own evil purposes.
Netflix’s animated film Wish Dragon starts with that rags-to-riches Aladdin formula, then transports the story to modern-day Shanghai. It actually isn’t as a direct copycat as it might seem, though drawing from a similar fairytale formula means it’s bound to mimic certain tropes. But when Wish Dragon doesn’t directly lean on those familiar elements, director Chris Appelhans (illustrator on Laika’s Coraline) manages to tell an updated, modern fantasy story with unique and specific humor. A lot of the plot elements feel overly familiar, but in the few moments where the movie transcends those trappings, it’s a fun, memorable romp.
[Ed. note: This post contains minor spoilers for Wish Dragon.]
After stumbling upon a teapot containing a magic, smart-talking Wish Dragon named Long (John Cho), college student Din (Jimmy Wong) uses his three wishes to try and reconnect with his childhood friend, Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Din hasn’t seen her in 10 years, since her father’s company made it big and she started living a life of luxury. After using a wish to get into her swanky birthday party, Din realizes they’re now residing in two completely different worlds. Oh, and also three mysterious henchmen are trying to steal the teapot to bring to a shady figure.
Everywhere it feels like Wish Dragon is going to go plotwise, it mostly does — except in the few instances where Appelhans puts a more modern spin on a well-trodden fairytale. The movie’s greatest offensive is its villainous figures, who are basically just there to add superfluous fight and chase scenes. The three henchmen and the leader they follow feel like obligatory threats to shove in some punching and kicking, but the actual conflict of Din, Long, and Li Na vs. society’s fundamental inequalities is more interesting. The fight scenes add some slapstick gags, but it’s more compelling to see Din feel out of place at a fancy restaurant.
Unfortunately, the movie’s third act is bogged down by more superfluous physical conflict. The plot twists about who the henchmen serve and who becomes the villain are both predictable. The final fight has some clever physical-comedy moments, as one of the henchmen wishes for a Midas-like ability to turn everything he touches into gold, among other things. But the conflict still feels shoehorned in to give Din and Long a more concrete adversary than the nebulous evils of economic inequity.
Visually, the movie paints a cartoony sheen onto modern-day Shanghai to highlight the difference between the wealthy and everyone else. It’s a lot of rounded edges and soft colors, giving Din’s less-affluent neighborhood a particularly warm look, especially in contrast to the stark whites of Li Na’s mansion. Li Na and Din aren’t super interesting in terms of character design, even though Long’s fluffy pink serpentine design lends itself to hijinks. No one can see him except for the bearer of the teapot, which means when he squishes himself into a taxi with Din, the taxi driver is confused about how one young man completely threw off the car’s weight distribution.
As for the rest of the jokes, some of them are genuinely funny, but Wish Dragon relies a lot on bathroom humor (literally, in some instances), which does the actual specific jokes some disservice. Long drinking from a bidet like it’s a water fountain might elicit chuckles from 10-year-olds who happen to know what bidets are, but Long watching a Chinese soap opera with Din’s neighbors and gasping at the wild plot twists while snacking on shrimp crackers (his new favorite food) is uniquely hilarious. Thankfully, the movie carries enough of these distinct jokes to save it from the toilet-humor doldrums.
Cho’s performance as Long gives the movie its life. He starts out with a smart-talking sidekick schtick that’s reminiscent of Aladdin’s Genie, but it becomes evident that Long isn’t just a sassy companion: He’s a deeply flawed and selfish character who goes on his own journey of discovery. In fact, he gets more intense character evolution than Din, who suffers a few moments of insecurity, but remains a wide-eyed, idealistic young man. Long, however, grows from a cynic into someone who learns the value of friendship and human connection. Sure, it’s a pretty standard lesson when it comes to family-friendly films, but making it the evolution of the comic relief instead of the main character gives Wish Dragon an interesting edge.
Overall, Wish Dragon doesn’t go particular far beyond predictable parameters, but that isn’t necessarily bad. It can be enough to see what well-worn fairytale plot elements look like in an entirely new setting, one that gives them new resonance and relevance. Sure, the lowbrow gags and rote combat drags the film down, but in the moments where Appelhans breathes contemporary specifics into the story, Wish Dragon is a quirky, appealing ride.
Wish Dragon is now streaming on Netflix.