Produced by Sony, Tencent and more, Wish Dragon is Netflix’s newest animated film and the feature debut of Chinese studio Base Animation. It’s also the directorial debut of children’s book author and illustrator Chris Appelhans, who also wrote the movie’s script. There’s a lot to love in Wish Dragon. It’s got cute characters, a sweet—if oversimplified—message and a pleasant animation style, all of which are hard to hate. It’s hard to imagine sitting a kid in front of the TV with this on and them not being entertained by it, which is sometimes all you need from a kid’s movie. But as other animated movies like Netflix’s recent The Mitchells vs. The Machines have shown, there’s a lot more to strive for than just entertaining the youngest audiences. Wish Dragon varies a lot in this regard, ranging from being genuinely funny and enjoyable to difficult to tolerate with its more juvenile humor—nowhere near consistent enough to become an animated classic.
Set in modern China, the movie follows sweet but naïve college kid Din (Jimmy Wong), who is obsessed with reconnecting with his childhood friend and love interest, Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Fortunately for him, he comes across a magical teapot that contains the titular “Wish Dragon” Long (John Cho), who can—say it with me here—grant him three wishes. Killing people and making others fall in love with you are still no-gos, but apparently bringing them back from the dead is fine. Just no time travel.
The genie-in-a-bottle story is one that’s been done ad nauseum, and it feels like Wish Dragon copies 90% of Aladdin. We have a magical being who provides much of the movie’s comedy through his theatrical movements, a boy who uses his wishes to impress a girl from a much richer family who yearns for life outside of her highly controlled environment, and an evil group who chases after the hero in order to use the teapot for their own schemes. The different environment and time period helps shake things up, but it still feels unavoidably derivative.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have any identity of its own. Early on, Din inadvertently wishes to be able to fight, granting him martial arts abilities that make for some low-stakes action sequences and movement, as his limbs involuntarily fly out to kick an adversary or catch a vase from falling. Long allows for some of the movie’s most interesting animation, with his big fluffy face leaving tons of room for expression and his transformations into a traditional Chinese dragon kite or awkward human butler keeping things fresh. Cho also gives the character a great level of sass to counter Din’s innocence, which makes for some of the movie’s funniest moments—even if they can’t hold a candle to Robin Williams’ Genie.
As far rest of the animation goes, it’s clear that Base Animation wasn’t given the same bonkers budget as a Disney or even Dreamworks production, but it works well enough: Characters have a soft, squishy texture you’ll often see in computer-animated shows, and environments are similarly kept simple and clean. Some reflections look a little off and the lip-syncing seems to be tailored for the Mandarin version—where Jackie Chan voices Long—which certainly don’t ruin the experience, but contribute to the feeling that it could have used a bit more polish.
When I saw The Mitchells vs. The Machines earlier this year, I was blown away by its style and energy, and felt a little sad that people couldn’t experience it in a theater, especially since it’s now safer to do so for those who are vaccinated. When I saw Wish Dragon, I felt like it was at home on the streamer. It’s not the next knockout animated film, and I don’t think it’s trying to be. It’s a light, colorful romp that’s good for some knowing smiles and laughs, especially if you have young ones watching with you, and not much more.
At one point, a minor character catches the teapot and wishes for a mountain of puppies. These guys have beady little eyes, a simple, round shape and are all carbon copies of one another. They’re the simplest designs for a dog you could think of, and yet it was impossible not to go “aww.” They’re so cute! That pretty much goes for all of Wish Dragon: A simple, cute, unoriginal animated film that seldom impresses, but still warms your heart a little.
Director: Chris Appelhans
Writers: Chris Appelhans
Starring: Jimmy Wong, John Cho, Constance Wu, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jimmy O. Yang, Aaron Yoo, Will Yun Lee, Ronny Chieng
Release: June 11, 2021 (Netflix)
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.