Is Netflix’s Wish Dragon a Chinese Aladdin clone? Or it is more accurately, a Chinese critique of the Western dream?
Wish Dragon Synopsis
Best friends Din and Li Na were forced to part when Li Na’s family shifted away. Years later, Li Na is a wealthy socialite while Din, still impoverished, struggles to save enough money to present himself affluently at Li Na’s birthday party. When Din comes across a jade teapot containing a certain impatient dragon, his wishes are all suddenly within reach, but expectedly, not without moral consequences.
What began as a lighthearted Saturday evening home watch evolved into quite the academic experience for me. Thus, I’m going to split this snappy review into two parts. I’ll begin with a rundown of my viewing impressions of Wish Dragon.
- When I first watched the trailer, my immediate response was, “Aiya, this is an Aladdin clone lah!”
- Five minutes into the show, and I was in love with the art style. It’s American animation the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks, but the backdrops have a certain … Chinese puppet show flavour? It’s a gorgeous hybrid.
- The dragon-genie didn’t disappoint. The simplest way to describe him is that he’s a parody of Robin William’s beloved 1992 depiction. Pretentiously eager to please but in truth, couldn’t wait to get the task over and done with. He reminded me of snotty (Chinese) waiters. You know, the type who would have a lot to say, about your clothes, the moment they are away from your table.
- Up to the mid-point of the movie, Wish Dragon is completely a Chinese modern retelling of Aladdin. Beyond that, however, the story moves in quite a different direction, with a substantial emphasis on the dragon’s conflicts.
- As entertaining as this animated fantasy is, I have to say it lacks a certain exuberance despite the many action sequences and chases. The New York Times attributed this to a lack of song and dance, and intergenerational appeal. I’ll say, yes, but I’ll add that it also has to do with a certain harsh cynicism underlying the story.
Which brings me to:
A Chinese Conversation i.e. a Response to the American Dream?
In the spirit of lifelong learning, so promoted by the Singaporean government in recent years, I signed up for some free tertiary courses over at Edx.org in April.
One was an archived course on Hong Kong action cinema taught by HKU. To my surprise, a major module of this course was a cultural analysis of Jackie Chan’s career. Specifically, how Chan’s career developments reflected the actor’s savvy awareness of cultural conflicts and trends.
Jackie Chan, one of the co-producers of Wish Dragon. Who also voiced the arrogant dragon in the Mandarin version. Who’s also a known supporter of the PRC.
Now, I must admit I didn’t even know Chan was one of the producers till the credits roll; I didn’t research beforehand. But once I was aware, certain elements in the show adopted a different light.
- The story very obviously critiques the pursuit of material wealth. While this is common in many family-friendly movies, look deeper and you will notice the show specifically critiques Western-style affluence. For example, Li Na was repeatedly shown as a glamourous spokesperson for Piaget watches, but despite that, still deeply unhappy with her life.
- To give away mild spoilers, the Wangs’ family fortunes were redeemed thanks to soup dumplings. I.E. a traditional food of China.
- The villains were all in western suits, and did what they did for money. The dragon initially believed that money could solve everything too.
- Li Na herself took great joy in simple activities like kite flying and street dancing. I.E. the popular communal entertainments of the PRC.
Admittedly, I could be over-reading the above; this is common in film analysis. But with reference to the course I took, everything seems part of a veiled effort to reject Western-style capitalism. Or should I say, Western measures and icons of affluence and happiness?
Within the HKU course, Jackie Chan’s 2010 remake of The Karate Kid was also described as the action actor’s effort to “speak” to the American dream. The remake suggested a replacement of the American dream with the “China dream.” There was also the implied message that post-2000 China is the place to be in to fulfil your dreams, including for Americans and especially for Afro-Americans.
Wish Dragon, as an Aladdin story in Shanghai, strongly hinted the same to me.
Again, am I over-reading? I don’t know. I’m still undecided.
More importantly, did my “realisations” affect my overall opinion of Wish Dragon? Actually, they didn’t. As an overseas Chinese, I see myself as outside of the current political confrontations between the USA and PRC. If anything, such possibilities make the reviewing of this flick much more enjoyable.
Read my other snappy movie reviews.