‘Wish Dragon’: How to Bring an Animated ‘Aladdin’ Back to China

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Animation
Animation

When visual development artist Chris Appelhans (“Coraline”) realized that “Aladdin” was originally a Chinese folk tale while visiting Shanghai 20 years ago, he had an aha moment about writing and directing an animated genie-in-a-bottle retelling set in modern Shanghai. The result is “Wish Dragon” (streaming Friday on Netflix), an American-Chinese co-production with Sony Pictures Animation, in which working-class college student, Din (Jimmy Wong), teams up with pink, fluffy, snarky genie, Long (John Cho), to reunite with his long-lost childhood friend, Lina (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), now a famous model.

As Appelhans watched a friend in Shanghai “struggling with family and class and concepts of success, it seemed like that timeless [‘Aladdin’] story… about a peasant boy who lives with his mother, meets a wish-granting genie, falls in love with a princess, loses himself, and finds himself again, could have newfound relevance today,” he said. “It made me think a lot about the world. In a naive way, I tried to recreate that experience through this story and hope people get a better understanding of China.”

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Part of the challenge was making a love letter to the transformation that started in Shanghai 10 years ago. During research trips, Appelhans observed half-demolished neighborhoods being gentrified. “We’d go back three months later to do more research and they’d be gone, completely replaced by a mall,” he added. “And that was the inspiration for the story: When the world is changing so fast, how do you keep your bearings? How do you figure out what matters to you when anything’s possible?”

That’s where the genie steps in: a wise-cracking, cynical con-artist with a dark past and an addiction to shrimp chips. “He’s your best friend for his own very selfish reasons,” Appelhans continued. “He’s patronizing and a bit arrogant and, in a weird way, has a very delusional view of the world. And to make that likable was hard. I prepared all these notes for John, but he didn’t need them. He had Long all worked out.”

But it was important that “Wish Dragon” be made in China to retain any semblance of authenticity. It was set up by a Chinese consortium that included Jackie Chan’s Sparkle Roll Media and Flagship Entertainment Group, and marked the debut animated feature by Base Animation, a division of visual effects studio, Base FX, based in Xiamen. Olivier Staphylas (“How to Train Your Dragon”), who served as head of character animation, brought a stable of young animators he trained in China and India.

Meanwhile, producers Aron Warner (“Shrek”) and Chris Bremble (VFX supervisor at Base FX) helped set up the pipeline, and head of story Radford Sechrist (“How to Train Your Dragon 2”) and production designer Shelly Wan (color artist on “Inside Out”) provided crucial artistic leadership on the $25 million production. The voice cast also included a trio from “Fresh Off the Boat”: Constance Wu, Jimmy O. Yang, and Ian Chen.

Mid-way through production, though, Sony stepped up with additional financing and management acumen from Kristine Belson (president of SPA) and Pam Marsden (head of production) to complete the movie with studio polish. “On one level, the movie was an independent production, but Sony partnered at the most critical juncture,” Appelhans said. “We had an animatic we liked, great character designs, and about 50 percent figured out. [Sony] watched that and they believed in us. But they showed how it deserved to be executed at a proper level.”

Not surprisingly, the design and animation of Long, the genie, took the greatest amount of artistic effort. The goal was to pay tribute to the iconic look of a Chinese dragon with a horse-like muzzle and reindeer-like horns. “We also wanted to completely subvert expectations so we made him pink and covered in fur,” the director added. “Then he wanted him to be the one character that wasn’t grounded at all. It was a chance to celebrate what you can do in animation that you couldn’t do with humans.”

Long was difficult to rig and required very specific rules for posing. His hands and head needed to be in close proximity, but it didn’t make sense to limit his hand gestures. “So we had a stunt hand that comes out behind his head,” Appelhans said. “It’s totally broken and disconnected behind camera. He’s just a total 2D character that’s sculpted in 3D to create these poses. We designed every moment and story beat to be streamlined.”

A final, unexpected twist occurred after the pandemic hit last year. Sony was set to distribute “Wish Dragon,” but, with theaters closed, Netflix came to the rescue, and acquired the animated feature along with “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” the latest Oscar hopeful from “Into the Spider-Verse” producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and first-time director Michael Rianda.

“In a weird way, you’re sad because you want to see the movie on the big screen with an audience,” Appelhans said. “On the other hand, the barrier to entry is so low now, that so many people have the chance to push play. As a storyteller, I feel very grateful that so many will see the movie.”

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