Wish Dragon is the directorial debut from artist and illustrator Chris Appelhans. Aptly titled, it’s about a working-class college-student named Din, voiced by Jimmy Wong, who comes in possession of an ancient tea-pot containing a magical dragon that can grant him almost any three wishes. The titular wish dragon, named Long and voiced by John Cho, is down to his last master before he can be free of his duties and finally go to heaven, so he’s hoping to expedite the process. Unfortunately for Long, our plucky protagonist decides to gradually use his wishes to try to reconnect with his old childhood friend, Lina, voiced by Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who has become quite wealthy and subsequently inaccessible. He’s been having difficulty balancing the hours of work needed to raise money for a chance to speak with Lina again with his responsibilities as a student, which puts a strain on his relationship with his single-mother, voiced by Constance Wu.
If that plot summary sounds familiar, that’s because it is. This is a story we’ve heard before, clearly inspired by Aladdin with some Cinderella influences and a dash of coming-of-age parental drama. The good thing about these classic tales is that they’ve survived over centuries by being flexible and adaptable. In this case, placing the story in a modern day Chinese city breathes a life into the story that is integral to its success. The magic is not lost in the urban environment, but instead results in new ways to explore this colorful and lively landscape, especially since Long is unacquainted with the 21st century. Although the animation style is western, the world of the film is still regionally distinct and wonderful to explore. The animation in general is clean, smooth, and bright. This results in engaging action sequences, but their success is not solely attributed to it.
Visual gags in children’s films can often skew too goofy for more mature viewers and disengage them from the film. In Wish Dragon, the humor is artfully executed. It’s simply a very funny movie. The jokes land without being immature, and they manage to execute visual gags that are laugh out loud funny. The humor also blends well with the serious tones of the film. While essentially Wish Dragon is simply about the value of loving others over material gain, what makes the film satisfying is how all the characters go through journeys that allow them to converge on this truth in different ways. Although it’s a simple thematic line, the different elements of character interaction elevate its emotional delivery. Valuing the accumulation of wealth above all else is a detriment to yourself and others, and we see that play out in different forms. It never becomes too dark or emotional, but it is none-the-less impactful.
The cast all do a great job with their roles. Although there are big celebrity names in the cast, they do not distract from the story. The characters are a bit archetypal as it is difficult to give nuanced characters a single-minded goal, but their personalities are distinctive enough to where they still feel realistic. Many of the characters’ struggles compliment each other and there are scenes that mirror each other, which adds a level of refinement to the narrative.
Wish Dragon is a delight. Although it has a very predictable, classic plot, this film is about the journey, not the destination. Its city and style sings and the writing is witty and heartfelt. It’s simple, clean, excellently executed, and lovely. Although a bit simple, if you want a feel-good urban fairy-tale retelling, this is for you.