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Wish Dragon (2021)

Sony Pictures Animation has had one heck of a 2021. Although the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, they have found commercial and critical success on Netflix with The Mitchells Vs The Machines (delayed from its original 2020 release) and Vivo. Wish Dragon was the third of their releases to skip cinemas and head straight to streaming -everywhere except China, where it was released in cinemas in January of this year.

Wish Dragon is the first film to be produced as part of Sony’s international co-production initiative. It was produced by Sony Pictures Animation and Columbia Pictures in association with Chinese media giant TenCent, Beijing Sparkle Roll Media CorporationFlagship Entertainment and Base FX. The animation was produced by China-based studio Base Animation (part of Base FX) and Industrial Light and Magic. It was the feature debut of writer-director Chris Appelhans. 

The film follows Din, a working-class student living in Shanghai, 10 years after his best friend Li Na moved away, Secretly he works as a part-time delivery boy to earn enough money so he can afford to go and visit his childhood bestie, who now lives a glamorous life as a model. As luck would have it, one day he comes across a magical teapot that holds a magical dragon called Long who has the power to grant him three wishes. But he’s not the only one who knows about the teapot and a gang of thugs are also trying to get their hands on Long- and will do whatever it takes to get him.

Comparisons with the story of Aladdin- and in particular Disney’s classic animated adaptation- are inevitable. Although the House Of Mouse set their version in a fictional Middle-eastern country, the original version of Aladdin was actually set in China. Wish Dragon brings the story back to its original home (he’s called Din, geddit?)  but updates it to a present-day setting. 

In the updated version, Din is no street-rat, but he and his mother live a simple life in a run-down building, in the shadow of the towering skyscrapers and structures of modern Shanghai. Similarly, Li Na is not an actual princess but a model and socialite in high society is a pretty good modern equivalent.

Although drawing from the same source material, Wish Dragon feels very much like its own thing, and distinct enough from the Disney film or any other previous version of the story to make it feel fresh.  The titular mystical beast is also a very distinct character that keeps a distance from the iconic performance of The Genie from the late, great Robin Willaims.

Voiced by John Cho in English (or by Jackie Chan in the Mandarin version) Long is one disgruntled Dragon who is unimpressed with the modern world and just wants to grant Din’s wishes and get it over with. Cho has great fun with the role and also is able to bring the requisite warmth for when Din (inevitably) begins to break down his defences.

The bond between Long and Din is one of the most important relationships in the film, but it is the relationship between Din and Li Na that is its real heart. Their friendship is established effectively in a very sweet montage featuring their first meeting and showing how they became inseparable until Li Na’s father took her away. Despite the limited screen time we really see them together, it's easy to root for them both. It’s quite refreshing that their relationship is framed as entirely platonic (Din insists multiple times “it’s not like that”). It’s possibly inferred that their relationship will probably become romantic in the near future, but to the young target audience, it just looks like any other friendship. 

Visually, the characters are quite a bit simpler and less detailed than many other recent Hollywood animated features. Certainly in comparison to the groundbreaking visuals of Sony’s own Into The Spider-Verse and The Mitchells (or even Vivo) it’s much more conventional. Nonetheless, the designs have a certain charm to them (particularly Long and his consistently unimpressed expressions). 

In action, the animation has an enjoyably cartoony flavour to it that shines in some brilliantly executed (and very funny) slapstick, all rubber limbs and pratfalls. It’s showcased best in some cartoony action sequences that arise from Din’s magically acquired kung-fu skills. The film’s villain (the distinctly unthreateningly named Pockets) also has some pretty impressive moves unleashed with his incredibly long legs.

Wish Dragon’s setting has the effect of automatically making it feel fresher to a western audience. Contemporary China certainly makes for a novel setting in comparison to the legions of animated features set in the US or Japan. With the animation itself actually being produced in China, it has the air of authenticity to it, even if it’s written and directed by an American filmmaker.

Ultimately although it tells an extremely familiar story that experienced viewers will never have any doubt where it’s headed, Wish Dragon does enough different to make it feel like something new.



IN A NUTSHELL:  A funny, fresh and frothy concoction, Wish Dragon is a refreshingly different spin on a classic story.



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