By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Sadly, Wish Dragon is a very paint by numbers Disney-style product. It has elements of Aladdin, Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon all mixed in, and I’m fairly sure writer/director Chris Appelhans even drew upon the song When I Wish Upon a Star for inspiration. This blending delivers on the meaning behind the lyrics, “The sweet fulfillment of their secret longing…” but fails when considering other details. This work can’t decide if it wants to be a social commentary/comedy ala Crazy Rich Asians or a tween romance. The balancing act isn’t well done.
The introduction establishes Din (Jimmy Wong) and Li (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) as kids promising to be best friends forever, a la Lilo & Stitch. Both are troublemakers and it’s cute to see them together. Unlike this franchise, they eventually get separated. The girl becomes a model and has forgotten about her past. Her dad’s motives are good, but it turns out he has an “evil” agenda. He’s searching for that magic lamp to grant him a better life for his family.
For a moment, I thought Appelhans was going for a reverse concept from Miraculus (the puppy love minus the superhero stuff). Din grows up with no other besties. He longs to reunite with Li on her Sweet 16 birthday party. Everyone else treats her like the princess that she is and hopes she can model their latest product. Meanwhile, the lad finds a magical teapot; Long (John Cho), the dragon spirit, offers him a chance at being successful. This serpent taunts him, but the irony is too familiar to really laugh along with. The obligatory stranger in a strange land (technically, an ancient dragon adjusting to modern life) filler material is distracting. The narrative shows some promise by the end of the second act. If true love develops, that’s something a sequel will have to address.
Any sense of Buddhist ideals is dumbed down, and I wished this film could have done more with it. It tries to impart some wisdom about why materialism is bad, but it’s a message not worked into the screenplay very well. It is dumped out in one huge scene, when it should’ve been explored more carefully in context to how Din is trying to impress Li, who seems to be a materialistic girl.
Instead, one detail I appreciated is in the limitations on what an individual can wish for. The fact that love can’t be magically manufactured is traditional. One curiousity is the implication that wishes can be granted to any individual capable of touching the teapot. It defeats the djinni’s rule of obeying only one master, the one who freed him or her, and Long said he only one more person to grant wishes to before he can ascend to heaven. Any additional wishers won’t get their fondest desires fulfilled. This fail ruins the fantasy of this film.
Any sense of what life is like in China is also very stereotyped despite it being made in country. It could have spent more time in distinguishing what life is like in and out of the city of Shanghai. I thought it was odd the introduction featured the kids enjoying life in some random suburb. After all that’s revealed in later acts suggests Din could have gone to visit Li anytime. Where she moved to is a bus ride away once when he found out she didn’t relocate very far. His mother could’ve stopped him, but after all that was established in the introduction, it’s very unlikely anyone, Buddha included, would want their relationship to end.
3 Stars out of 5