Movie review: 'Wish Dragon' (2021)
Wish Dragon (trailer) is a computer-animated film from the Sony Pictures Animation International Initiative, a fancy way of saying "international co-production", in this case between Sony and several studios in China. Concept art made the rounds in 2018, and they hoped to finish it in 2019. For whatever reason, it didn't get released until January 15, 2021 - in China - so this review is of the Chinese dub with English subtitles.
A little backstory. When Kung Fu Panda came out in 2008, it had so much artistic attention to cultural detail that China kicked their animation industry into high gear. In the twelve years since then, they've become a powerhouse of animation. Recently, there's been a slow-growing effort to make their films more exportable. Some efforts have fallen flat, like the sadly-overlooked Rock Dog; but with Mosley and Wish Dragon I'm optimistic that there'll be more co-productions to come!
The main character is named Din (probably a nod to Aladdin). He's a young guy, about 18 years old, who lives in a small apartment with his single mom. Their life is low-income, and Din is having a hard time balancing school with a food delivery side-job. Things change when he comes into posession of a jade teapot containing Long, a dragon who can grant him three wishes. What Din wants more than anything else is to see his childhood friend Lina again; but it's not so simple. She moves in different circles now… and someone else is after the teapot.
I really liked this movie! After watching it, I had a positive buzz going. The story's pretty standard, but it knows what it's doing, and does it well. Writing and directing are credited to Chris Appelhans, who's done art design for several animated films, though I'm sure there must have been a lot of collaboration here. The bulk of the animation was done in China. Culturally, the story is set in Shanghai, and they took great care to use common story elements, so that international audiences could relate.
Din's a decent character, not stupid, though a bit of an impulsive dreamer. Lina is good, too, though she feels a bit secondary. Trapped by her obligations, she's got a bold side when it's given the opportunity to shine. And Long, the dragon - well, you can't compare him fairly to Genie from Disney's Aladdin. Who could top Robin Williams' performance? What makes Long interesting are his flaws. His motivations for helping Din are (1) because he has to, and (2) impatience. Once the wishes are complete, Long will finally be able to move on to the spiritual realm.
Wish-wise, I won't spoil anything except that the third wish is not to undo the previous wishes. Long uses his powers to help Din on several occasions without one, especially when things need a little nudging. There are limitations. Long is visible to Din, and usually invisible to others.
Let's talk character design! Long (which means... "dragon") is a Chinese dragon, noodle-style. If you thought Sisu from Raya and the Last Dragon looked a bit plush, Long is even more plush. He's a lengthy serpent with short arms and occasional legs. His body is two shades of pink (with little blue flecks), a tufted tail, purple hair on his head (puffy, with short horns), and a somewhat boxy muzzle. The art design and body motion is cartoony, in a good way. This applies to the human characters as well. Sometimes I felt sequences and dialog were a little too fast. Otherwise there was lots of entertaining animation, with very silly things being done with legs. That may sound strange; it was fun to watch!
So yeah, the animation and visual design is pretty darn good. The music - I didn't really notice it, but it set the mood when it needed to. As for the English voice acting: I don't know, because I watched the Chinese version. Din is to be played by Jimmy Wong, Lina by Natasha Liu Bordizzo, and Long by John Cho (Jackie Chan in the Mandarin dub). The writing was well-balanced; I never felt like the movie was insulting my intelligence. There were two songs (both for montages), barely any toilet humor - and I actually laughed. At a whole bunch of moments during this film! At one point there was an annoying physics failure involving string, redeemed later by a… thematic echo of sorts? I don't want to spoil anything. (The trailer I linked to certainly doesn't.) The main themes are about friendship, wealth, happiness, and one's personal future.
Another thing that made me happy was that both Din and Long get character development. I had some real feelings happening towards the end! There are funny moments when Long isn't familiar with the modern world and its technology. The last time he was out of the teapot was at least a century ago. I was pleasantly surprised that the gag wasn't over-used.
Overall, I was definitely entertained by this film, and it really cheered me up. I highly recommend it! Netflix in the U.S. will be releasing it on Friday, June 11. Give it a watch if you can!
(If you're interested in other Chinese animation, check out 2016's Big Fish & Begonia. It's neither furry nor an international co-production. The story is bittersweet, and the animation is great, reminiscent of the atmosphere in Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away.)