If you could wish for anything in the world, what would it be? What really matters? On June 11, Netflix brings the highly-anticipated Wish Dragon animated movie to the small screen, asking exactly that question.
Classic Story, Reimagined
Wish Dragon tells the hilarious and heartwarming story of Din, a working-class college student, and Long, a cynical but all-powerful Wish Dragon capable of granting his master three wishes. Together, the duo set off on a hilarious adventure through modern-day Shanghai in pursuit of Din’s long-lost childhood friend, Lina. Along the way, both Long and Din learn valuable lessons about friendship, family, and what it means to be human.
It’s a tale as old as time: A peasant boy longs for the attention of a princess, when he suddenly discovers a vessel containing a magical creature with the power to grant him three wishes. If you’re thinking about the story of Aladdin, you’d be half right — in fact, the Dickensian legend is rooted in Chinese folklore.
“The original Aladdin story is a Chinese folktale pre-Arabian Nights, set in far western China,” Chris Appelhans, who wrote and directed Wish Dragon tells Parentology. “The Chinese story is very similar, but it’s a peasant boy who lives with his mom. He finds a genie. He falls in love with the princess. He kind of loses himself and finds himself again.”
One of the most intriguing characters is Long, the film’s namesake. Having been trapped in a teapot for over 1000 years, he’s had some time to ruminate about past misdeeds and the consequences to the choices he’s made. Yet with every master he’s served (Din is his last master before he can ascend to the spirit world), he’s allowed past mistakes to inform his journey. It’s only when Long meets Din that he comes to understand that perhaps, there are things more valuable than immense wealth and “the good life”.
Honoring Chinese Culture
Appelhans says he felt an immense responsibility as a storyteller to stay true to the source material.
“We didn’t want to change some of the aspects of the basic story just to be different from other versions,” he says. “On the other hand, there were some really organic things about the Chinese folktale that we embraced, like the focus on Din’s relationship with his mother. And the fact that Long the Wish Dragon is so flawed … it’s his journey in many ways, it’s his arc that’s the biggest.”
The film certainly serves up a mix of archetype and iconography with a healthy dose of unexpected elements rooted in the modern world. The script is easy, fluid and filled with laughs. The dialogue never feels choppy or forced — not an easy feat for the writer-director. The film’s success is due in part to Appelhans having spent three years in Shanghai, where he came to know the people and culture on a very personal level.
“I always find myself trying to explain why some kid from the Middle-of-Nowhere, Idaho is making a personal film about China. How could it be personal?” Appelhans laughs. “But I think it speaks to the removal of cultural boundaries that don’t exist so much anymore.”
Appelhans tells the story of making a friend in Shanghai in my mid-twenties, who was basically Appelhans’ clone. “Essentially, the inspiration for the movie came from his life and his own struggles with notions of success, and China transforming overnight into this intense rat race where everyone’s there to achieve a new and better life.”
Struggling with family and class and concepts of success certainly feels like a timeless story, one which has newfound relevance today. And so began a seven-year journey to make Wish Dragon. Appelhans’ hope was to capture, if even just a little, the everyday life of modern China — and to reveal sameness and humanity in a world that might, to some, seem so different.
Thematically, there are a lot of universal truths in this sweet, funny film about what it means to be human and be in the service of others — valuable content for anyone trying to impart those life lessons to their children.
“I think we’re in an era where relationships across these kinds of distances are possible. You can see yourself in people on the other side of the world. We should all be telling stories in a way that connects us, where we can see all of our commonalities and ignore the superficial differences,” says Appelhans.
The protagonists fluctuate between losing their wishes, hopes, dreams and identity — and finding themselves anew. Even the titular character, a fluffy pink dragon, entertains viewers with his antics and surprises us with his depth. Eventually, Long comes to realize that anything worth having can’t be bought.
Wearing Different Hats
Appelhans began his career as a concept artist on animated hits such as The Princess and the Frog, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Monster House before moving into production design on the stop-motion feature Coraline; this last project earned him an Annie Award nomination. That background as an illustrator helped inform his role as director.
“Animation is one of the most profound collaborative art forms. Literally, you need two hundred people with specialized, remarkable skills, and it humbles you in the sense that you might be good as a designer and a writer, but you have to focus on recruiting talented people, inspiring them and delegating your vision to them, because you can’t hope to have the mastery of everything that’s needed to make a great film,” he says.
This vision wasn’t lost on our resident co-reviewers (ages 6 and 9 respectively), who stayed glued to the film from beginning to end; a fact that tickled Appelhans to no end.
“With animated films, the hardest thing in the world is to make it look simple and seem organic and effortless,” Appelhans says. “That’s where I respond to knowing that a kid truly stays engaged, because they don’t care about credentials or who made it, and there’s no way to fool them there.”
The World Needs a Wish Dragon
Wish Dragon is an exploration of Chinese culture, and Appelhans credits its authenticity in part to his 3-year adventure in China, but stresses that the people who helped make this film a reality deserve the accolades.
“Most of the authenticity of the movie came from [working] with a Chinese studio and Chinese crew. They bring their lived experience to the movie, which makes it authentic in a way that I could never do,” he says, noting that Jackie Chan was a producer on the film. The Kung Fu action scenes are a tribute to Chan, and the cutting style, layered action, and over-the-top physicality were all inspired by his amazing work. Chan is also the voice of Long in the Mandarin dub.
“On a human level, there’s a whole lot of forces in the world that are really divisive and all about creating a sense of tribalism; defining people by their ethnicity or racial background, which is just awful,” says Appelhans.
“If as artists and storytellers, we can reveal our humanity and slip past people’s defenses, get around them and make them laugh, entertain them, and subtly let them fall in love with people from another culture and relate to them, I think it’s really healthy for the world.”
Wish Dragon soars into Netflix on June 11, 2021 . The movie stars John Cho (Long), Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Lina), Jimmy Wong (Din), and Constance Wu (Mrs. Song). Learn more on the Wish Dragon website.