Film, Foreign, Netflix, Other

“Wish Dragon” is a lovely little film.

I like being proven wrong. It means I’m learning. So I was very happy when the Chinese-American movie, Wish Dragon, turned out to be an adorable and funny movie.

Not the best movie of 2021. That still goes to The Mitchells vs. The Machines for now – but it’s a nice modern-day adaptation of the Aladdin tale.

Set in modern-day Shanghai, the movie follows Din who is trying to reconnect with his long-lost childhood friend turned model, Li Na. One day, while working as a delivery boy, a man claiming to be a god hands him a teapot – which turns out to contain the Wish Dragon Long. Din is his 10th master, meaning when the wishes are used up, Long is free to go to the spirit world.

Naturally, Long is eager to get the whole thing over with – while Din wants to be more strategic, so the two must work together to achieve both their goals while growing as people.

Oh – and there’s an army of goons trying to steal the teapot for their mysterious benefactor. It’s not a particularly complicated tale – but it’s sweet and genuine, with some great emotional moments.

The Problems

There aren’t any unforgivable problems with this film- no racism, or sexism. But there are some confusing moments regarding character motivations that can’t be chalked up to “cultural differences.”

For example, Din lies about his identity and acts like a total asshole – at Long’s direction while on a date with Li Na. But when the truth is exposed, he is easily, easily forgiven.

I mean – I guess her memories of her childhood friend are enough to keep her from getting mad at him. But at least, her not recognizing Din actually makes sense. Unlike Disney’s Aladdin where all it takes is a change of clothes for Jasmine to recognize her suitor – Li Na hasn’t seen Din since they were 9.

You’d rarely be able to recognize somebody from elementary school 10 years down the road.

But the situation still rubbed me the wrong way. I’d be pretty pissed if I was lied to like that – especially after the way Din acted…It just feels like it should have been more of a conflict.

And this is minor but how the heck did Li Na’s dad know about the teapot? 

We’re given absolutely nothing to go on. Myths, legends, web searches…there’s gotta be something that led him to know about the teapot and its power. But somehow, we’re never told how he knows.

How did he know where it was going to be? It was literally in an abandoned building. There’s no way for Wang to know this – no hints. It had been a thousand years since it was last seen, how did he know it was actually going to work?

And why the hell was a magical teapot his way of dealing with bankruptcy? That doesn’t seem like a good backup plan.

Maybe I missed something. Maybe it’s because this is a kids’ film but I just don’t get it. 

Just a little bit of backstory about the teapot and how he came across it would go a long way in developing his character.

However, I did like how this turned the typical “evil corporate executive” trope on its head. Wang didn’t actually intend for anyone to get hurt. His goons made that decision for him.

This last one is even more minor, but the rule of three is important: I’m pretty sure Long never introduced himself properly to Din…how did he learn Long’s name?

Either I missed it or somebody in the production didn’t notice that the two never introduce themselves on screen.

The Relationships

The theme of this movie is the importance of relationships over everything else. Basically, nothing is more important than human connection, and we see that mostly through Din and his relationships with the three other main characters.

Din and Li Na’s relationship is set up REALLY well – the opening montage could compete with Up’s. We get to see Li Na and Din meet – and see how their childhood relationship blossoms. There’s never a moment where you doubt that the two are best friends – they even make a sweet pinkie promise to stay together forever.

It’s never shown as romantic – the two are just as thick as thieves, best friend types.

That all ends when Li Na’s father gets a new job and is forced to move away. It’s heartbreaking. And Din follows her career – while Li Na is too busy being a model. Not that she’s vain – she just wants to spend time with her dad, who is too busy with the company. She doesn’t really care for the fame.

She remains sweet, genuine and goofy even as an adult. And she remembers Din fondly. Which really allows the relationship when it’s rekindled to work. It’s like the two were never apart in the first place.

And Din isn’t in love with her really – he just wants his best friend back. Though he could like her more than that —but he never expresses this.

Despite their age gap, Din and Long definitely have more of a friend-like relationship than a father-son one, which is probably due to Long’s immaturity and his complete ignorance of the modern world. 

We get the usual jokes where he’s confused by busses, TVs, and the like. And we also get the main issue of him giving absolutely terrible and outdated advice in order to win Li Na’s heart – who he also seems to believe Din wants to woo.

He does act as Din’s “chauffeur” and wingman, seemingly out of the goodness of his heart. He didn’t have to and he could have forced Din to make a wish, but he doesn’t. And he does mean well when he gives advice. He’s not trying to sabotage Din on purpose.

Long is just a selfish idiot.

And so the two become close – and it’s Din’s positive outlook on the world and his genuine kindness that makes Long realize that he’s been going about the Wish Dragon business all wrong. The only reason he got turned into a dragon was because he was a bad person in life, obsessed with power and money. Yet, he mostly granted wishes of power and wealth, having not learned his lesson about what makes people happy.

But after meeting Din, Long sacrifices his chance at an afterlife to grant Din his final and most selfless wish. And during his second round as a Wish Dragon, it becomes clear he’s going to use his powers for good.

Din’s main familial relationship is with his mom. She wants him to go to college, study and find a good job. She wants him to live a good life, one better than she has – since they live in a tiny, cramped apartment. Din doesn’t even have his own room – just a curtained-off area with a bed and his few things.

She means well – but even though wanting Din to go college makes sense, she’s in the wrong. She’s ignoring her son’s happiness. He’s happy as a delivery man – a job he took to afford a suit for Li Na’s party…But, I won’t think too much about what would have happened if hadn’t come across the teapot…and was still miserable at school.

The Humor

This movie has a lot of good humor that isn’t reliant on Long being a fish out of temporal water – or bathroom humor.

Like in the opening montage, we see Din and Li Na mourning over a pet chicken…while eating chicken legs. It’s a small moment but it perfectly encapsulates the movie’s sense of humor.

It’s unexpected. And since this is an American-Chinese production, they’re allowed to get away with some stuff that normally wouldn’t be okay in U.S. productions.

Din’s mom often loudly berates him in a way that’s common in Chinese media. At one point, one of Din’s friends rolls up a notebook and hands it to his mother when he realizes how upset she is with Din. She promptly hits Din with it.

Again, another small moment but it’s well-suited to the movie and lends to an air of cultural authenticity that might be missed if it were solely an American production. I can literally feel this moment being pulled from first-hand experience.

And then we have Long getting drunk off his ass on actual alcohol. Apparently, you can actually call alcohol – alcohol in kids’ movies. Who knew? It causes him to transform back into a dragon, rather than keeping up his human appearance…and it’s solved in a not so pleasant way…but I was amused that they were actually allowed to take it that far.

I did not really like the toilet humor – it was funny but still an overdone (and gross) gag.

And I liked how ridiculous Din’s first two wishes were. Firstly he wishes he could fight – because he’s being attacked by goons. What started out as a gag – actually ends up being a very useful ability for the rest of the movie.

His second wish is more ridiculous. He wants to be rich, but only for 24 hours so he can impress Li Na…When it wears off, he’s forced to come clean about his identity. I still don’t know why she forgave him – but it’s certainly one way of doing a true identity reveal that I won’t forget.

The Emotions

The film has some surprisingly dark and emotional moments. Some of them do get undercut by the writers injecting humorous moments for levity – but this film did get to me. I just wasn’t expecting this amount of poignancy from this film.

I can’t shut up about the opening montage. It’s literally my favorite part of the movie. It works as a story in its own right. I love it – from the music, to how it shows the relationship growing, to the humor to utter emotional blow it has when it’s revealed Li Na is moving away.

It’s a little cheesy – but I love it.

Then there’s Li Na’s dad literally dying – yeah, he’s okay in the end but the fact he falls from a great height and we see his body splayed out (with no blood of course) is pretty chilling. I just did NOT expect that from this movie. And he seems to literally die before he’s bought back to life – not on the verge of dying or injured but just dead as dead can be. 

And Li Na is crying OVER HIS BODY,

Damn SONY – props to you.

And Long dies too. He has everything he wanted within his grasp – but he hadn’t had the chance to grant Din’s last wish – a selfless wish. So he chooses to go back – even though he’ll have to serve another ten masters. It’s an important moment because Long realized he hadn’t learned anything from being a Wish Dragon.

It was meant to be a learning experience but he hadn’t figured anything out until Din.  And it’s genuine.

It’s a little cliched but it’s a genuine moment of self-reflection and self-recognition that I truly appreciate. It didn’t feel forced or unearned. It didn’t feel like it was talking down to its audience.

It made me tear up a little – and isn’t that the point of movies? To make us feel things?

It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen but it just might be a favorite comfort watch.

And that’s the scoop! 

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Grade: B+

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Director/Writer: Chris Appelhans

Producers: Aron Warner, Chris Bremble, Jackie Chan

Voice Actors (English): Jimmy Wong, John Cho, Constance Wu, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jimmy O. Yang, Aaron Yoo, Will Yun Lee, Ronny Chieng

1 thought on ““Wish Dragon” is a lovely little film.”

  1. Very interesting review. I’ve been hearing a lot about this movie. It was surprising that people don’t bash this movie for having that many similarities with Aladdin. Not sure how I would feel if there were obvious parallels, but it’s cool that China is getting more in the animation game.

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