The general story of the Aladdin folktale is a timeless classic. Impoverished young man acquires a magic object that houses the mystical djinn that grants wishes and, thus, the young man gets his heart's desires and ultimately defeats an evil sorcerer who wants the powers for himself. While most know the story as a Middle Eastern folktale, it has roots in Chinese folklore as well, and Wish Dragon, which debuts on Netflix Friday, June 11th, gives the story a Chinese spin, bringing it into contemporary times. While this is a story we've seen before and the film, at times, leans a little too close to previous tellings — specifically Disney's 1992 animated classic Aladdin — it's a charming and heartfelt film that emphasizes what real treasure is (and it's not wealth).
Directed and written by Chris Appelhans, Wish Dragon follows the story of Din (Jimmy Wong), a college student growing up in an impoverished part of the city who wants nothing more than to reconnect with his long-lost best friend, Lina (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who moved away from the neighborhood years before and has now become a wealthy and well-known model. Din, to his surprise, finds himself in possession of a magic teapot that contains Long (John Cho), the titular Wish Dragon.
The general mechanics of the story are pretty similar to Aladdin; Din gets three wishes, there are certain things he can't be granted (the dragon can't make people fall in love), and Long initially seems pretty much ready to just grant some wishes and be done. Where the story deviates from what one expects is that Din isn't looking for wealth or love. He simply wants his friend, who it turns out is a bit sad and lonely herself despite her seemingly perfect life.
There is a lot about Wish Dragon that absolutely works. The animation is lovely. The film being centered on friendship is refreshing and, while romance does factor into it, it's not the central element of the film. Cho's Long starts out feeling like a bad take on Robin Williams' Genie but quickly becomes its own unique thing that is loveable in its own way. There's even a bit of delight and adventure mixed in with the film's elements of class, and definitions of success.
Despite all this, there are some things that do not work. The film has a villain in the form of some hired goons trying to get the teapot and Long, but, honestly, the film would do well without that aspect of its plot. There is enough rich story in Din and Lina's stories to create a natural conflict as well as an opportunity for character growth that having the goons be part of the equation just felt a little bit like trying too hard. There's also some surprisingly adult humor in the film that, while not completely inappropriate for a children's film, still feels pretty out of place.
Wish Dragon is a lovely film about wish fulfillment and what truly matters. By centering its story on friendship and having Din more focused on relationships than wealth, the film has a richness to it that is perhaps unexpected. While it, at times, tries too much to be Aladdin, the film still manages to have its own voice. It's not breaking new ground in this respect, but it's a worthy addition to the overall folklore's retellings.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Wish Dragon debuts on Netflix Friday, June 11th.