You will hear a little voice going “it’s Genie, but now he’s Long” throughout Wish Dragon, the second of three Sony Pictures Animation’s works with rights reported to have been bought by Netflix during the pandemic (the others are The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Vivo). You may find the voice intensified if you had seen the film’s preview articles, or even reviews from writers based in China (where it was theatrically released in January), which would instantly bridge Base FX’s 3D debut with Disney’s 1992 hand-drawn hit. But you might not find the likeness bothersome, for the magenta deity houses plenty of lightness, lesson and laughter to be his own being — if you can keep up, that is.
Like The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Wish Dragon sees excitement in velocity. There may be more dimensions, and weight as a result, in our characters, the way they talk, move and think are as if they’re charged air. The story concerns Din (Jimmy Wong) stumbling upon the titular Long (John Cho, and Jackie Chan for the Mandarin dub) and then wishing if he could be ‘upgraded’ to grab the attention of his shikumen sweetheart Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Besides the comical beats, it has its share of fairly stunning revelations and dramatic hits, but writer Chris Appelhans (the Mandarin dialogue is from Xiaocao Liu) make pinpointing or memorising them difficult, as they sprint at default and blink-and-miss when heightened. Appelhans, who’s also directing — and this is his feature-length animation debut, may have been too affected by the swift pluckings of the pipa that occasionally back Philip Klein’s score, or the use of time-lapse that mirrors the actual Shanghai’s rapid growth. Many beating hearts are present in the film, seen in a boy re-meeting a girl, a son connecting with his tireless mum (Constance Wu), and a mortal attaching to a god, but they all pulse at the pace of having downed Hi-Tigers. You see all sorts of love, yet it’s disappointing you don’t quite get to feel them.
There’s a flip side to this speediness, though, and it assists Wish Dragon in a major way. Unlike Aladdin, original and live-action, the film has a particular sense of place — or at the least it can emerge from representation inspections with a skyward-leaning chin. Appelhans and crew set out to make an animated Shanghai, and an animated Shanghai is what we get. From there, we also get visual parallels of China’s culture: Din is a student who works as the kind of fast food deliverer VICE once covered, mum has both sway and say on his future, neighbours are news networks, knock-off shops and congestion (both home to some of the film’s funniest visual gags), and wealth exists in this twilight zone of being pursuable–dependent on miracle.
With a China-centric team and thus perspective that Appelhans is said to also vibe with, Wish Dragon may succeed where Crazy Rich Asians stumbled in portraying how money can purchase happiness as well as putrefy it. The film may have its own Jafar figure in the ultra-flexible henchman Pockets (Aaron Yoo) and hues of Flotsam and Jetsam in the gleeful Short Goon (Jimmy O. Yang) and the kind Tall Goon (Bobby Lee), but the chief antagonist here is affluence. It props up feelings with paper columns. It erodes you with the same value of the thing it provides you. It guides folks we respect to make the most horrid of choices. It makes it worthwhile to turn your tongue seven times before you wish. The moral of the story here is colossal, but the main takeaway — or the one that lingers — will more likely be how adorkable Long is. Letting Cho re-channel Harold Lee, somewhat, certainly adds to that effect, even if it means the film’s other gifts — some more meaningful and seeds for a more wholesome experience — are minimised. Ah, well, you can always tell your young’uns later on. Maybe after the already greenlit sequel comes out.
But someone ring Kyle Buchanan now and sees if Long’s human form can be part of his investigation. He caught the eye of a minor character in the film, that’s for sure.
Wish Dragon will be available on Netflix from June 11, 2021