“Wish Dragon” is well aware that “Aladdin” got there first. Making his spirited feature debut, dream-big animation director Chris Appelhans pretty much assumes you’ll be thinking of Disney’s blue genie when his humble Chinese hero rubs a jade teapot and produces a fluorescent flamingo-pink dragon, ready to grant his wildest dreams — or three of them at least. And you know what? He doesn’t care, because “Wish Dragon” delivers a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view, and that’s plenty.
Technically, China’s ancient wish dragon legend predates even “Arabian Nights,” a detail that gives Appelhans license to update the folk tale for the modern world while stripping it of so many of the tired clichés that now come with the territory in practically any wish-granting fable — like the wet-blanket “be careful what you wish for” trope, where an unlucky so-and-so’s poorly worded request inevitably backfires, teaching that person he was better off without whatever lust magic may have rustled up inside him.
The hero of “Wish Dragon” doesn’t have big ambitions. Shanghai-based Din (Jimmy Wong) may be dirt poor and desperate, but he’s unusually grounded as such characters go. When offered three wishes, he honestly doesn’t know what to request — whereas Long, his dutiful, all-powerful dragon (voiced by John Cho), is full of suggestions: Why not wish for piles of gold? Or his own personal army? After all, every one of Long’s previous masters wanted wealth and power. But not Din. He just wants his best friend back.
In the film’s upbeat opening, we see young Din and neighbor Li Na bonding over all things dragon. They pinky-swear to be pals forever, then the prologue turns melancholy, as Li Na’s father moves away and the buddies are separated. Flash forward a few years, and Din still can’t get her out of his mind — and who can blame him, now that Li Na’s a successful model whose face pops up on billboards all over town (including one on the roof of the hovel where Din still lives with his pragmatic mom, voiced by Constance Wu).
So when poof! the magic dragon shows up eager to serve, Din doesn’t covet money or power per se — although both would help him finagle his way into Li Na’s birthday party, since she’s now wealthy enough to be out of his league. To Long’s surprise, Din wishes for temporary wealth and power (but just enough dough to get through the door), trusting that they’ll be able to pick up where they left off if they can only be reunited.
The plot’s a little “have your cake and eat it too” in this regard: “Wish Dragon” presents Din as a pure, sincere soul — someone who can teach Long a lesson or two about life’s priorities — but also as a “peasant” to Li Na’s “princess.” Ergo, we’d expect him to be a little greedier in compensating for all that he lacks. Din’s lack of cupidity isn’t so hard to accept, since Appelhans’ aesthetic — both the quick, clever animation style (a zippy pose-to-pose technique that mirrors classic martial-arts movies) and all-around openness to Chinese culture, old and new — proves so entertaining unto itself. The exaggerated squash-and-stretch style (reminiscent of “Despicable Me” and the “Madagascar” movies) elevates otherwise familiar scenes, as when Din (who idly wishes he knew how to fight) faces off against a trio of lithe henchmen. And it’s great fun to watch Long bend and fold at right angles. (Chinese audiences benefit from producer Jackie Chan supplying the voice for the Mandarin-language version.)
Even more than last year’s Netflix original “Over the Moon,” this Sony Pictures Animation-produced pickup seems to recognize and respect the Eastern milieu in which it’s set, albeit with an appreciative outsider’s curiosity. Granted, most audiences won’t know anything about Appelhans (a gifted concept artist on films such as “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Monster House”) or where he’s coming from, but I was pretty excited to see his name on the film. I’ve been a longtime admirer of his watercolor illustrations — fantastical scenes featuring kids with floppy sloths, rusty robots and misshapen unicorns — and can see how such portraits of improbable friends, both real and imaginary, might translate to a teen and his trusty wish dragon.
What Appelhans and the makers of “Wish Dragon” couldn’t have known when they set out was that Disney had a kinda similar movie up its sleeve in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Plus, Disney had Awkwafina on its side (she’s a lot funnier than Cho, who’s got personality but can’t do impressions or improv the way a comedian can). “Raya” also riffed on the “Aladdin” myth, which leaves this project feeling slightly less fresh, although there’s room enough for multiple dragon-themed/wish-granting fables in this world. So go with the one streaming on whatever service you patronize — at least until we all get our wish that such movies find their way back to the big screen.