How ‘Wish Dragon’ Traces The Story of Aladdin Back to Ancient China

The first English translation of the One Thousand And One Nights (أَلْفُ لَيْلَةٍ وَلَيْلَةٌ‎, ʾAlf Laylah wa-Laylah) was titled The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. This is an alright way to understand the collection in its Islamic Golden Age form but conflates the collection of folktales that the original work is more of with the framing story of an ancient king being told these folktales. The reality of the original stories is that they come from all across the ancient Islamic world, as far east as Western China. Indeed, Aladdin is referred to as one of the Nights’ “orphan tales,” Its earliest appearances in the collection are set in “one of the cities in China.”

Cities in China, for their part, are growing by the day. Chris Applehans, director of the new Netflix animated film Wish Dragon, describes modern China as “transforming overnight, neighborhoods and families and values all changing at super speed. Issues of class, romance, family. Heartbreak swept away in a relentless race towards ‘success.’” People around the globe are far more familiar with the 1992 Disney version of the story Aladdin, which is itself iconic for its own reasons. Wish Dragon, however, brings the story back to its Chinese roots, combining elements from the folktale and the Disney version with a dash of contemporary imagery and storytelling to retell this ancient story in a way that reflects the centuries it has taken to make its journey around the globe.

So what are the quintessential parts of the folktale? Aladdin, a peasant boy, is paid by a Sorcerer to sneak into a cave and steal a magic lamp. He ends up trapped in the cave after some sort of double-crossing by the Sorcerer and inadvertently discovers a djinn living in the lamp bound to do the bidding of the lamp’s holder. He uses the lamp to escape, accrue enormous wealth, and marry the Sultan’s daughter. One day, the Sorcerer discovers that Aladdin is the peasant boy with the magic lamp and steals the lamp from Aladdin’s wife by posing as a used lamp salesman running a trade-in deal. Aladdin has all his stuff stolen magically but uses his cleverness to win it back.

Disney’s Aladdin (Scott Weinger) is a peasant boy like the original version, although you’d never guess he was missing meals from the looks of him. Wish Dragon’s modern-day protagonist, Din (Jimmy Wong), is not as buff as his Disney predecessor. Still, he is the modern-day version of a peasant and works as a delivery driver while studying for exams. But while both Aladdins are tricked into sneaking into a cave by the Sorcerer to retrieve a magic lamp, Din is instead gifted a magic teapot by a god disguising himself as a crazy old man. This Piqa God (Ronny Chieng) is pulling a tactic more common in Chinese folklore than in Middle-Eastern, and the Sorcerer takes on a different role in this story.

In mythology, djinn are spirits made from fire, probably originating as the personifications of hot desert winds in pre-Islamic folk beliefs. Their magic varies in strength but nowhere is it limited in the number of casts. The Disney version instead builds in the “three wishes” concept, by which the Genie (Robin Williams) can only grant three of Aladdin’s wishes. It’s unknown what would happen if Aladdin tried to make a fourth wish, but the limits of the Genie’s powers help define the three-act structure of the movie. Wish Dragon opts for the Disney direction, referencing Williams’s Genie in everything from the character Long’s animation to John Cho’s voice performance. But Long is a “wish dragon” — a fantastical, Disney-ified version of Chinese dragons, the same way that the Genie was a fantastical, Disney-ified version of the djinn. Like djinn, Chinese dragons are more like spirits or even gods than whatever this animated character is, but Wish Dragon takes further filmmaking cues from the masterful animation of Eric Goldberg, 

Aladdin’s relationship with the Princess also varies based on the version of the story. In the oldest versions of the story, his relationship with his mother is probably more important; she arranges his marriage to the Sultan’s daughter. The Vizier who tries to marry his son to the Princess in the folktale is combined with the Sorcerer in Disney’s version as Jafar (Jonathan Freedman), and Aladdin and princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin) are given a real relationship and real character arcs. Unlike her Nights counterpart Princess Badroulbadour, Jasmine has wants of her own.

Similarly, Din wishes to reconnect with his Princess, in this case, his childhood friend and daughter of a big company owner, Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). But their story, framed as two people meeting and growing close before losing and coming together again, is a romance trope that is more Eastern than the love-at-first-sight that Disney’s Aladdin and Jasmine have. Most traditional Chinese love stories especially end tragically, with everyone dying to be together in their next lives. Modern stories usually change this to a metaphorical death-and-rebirth, meaning that Din and Li Na’s meeting as young adults is a certain sort of reincarnated romance from a literary perspective.

Tragedy strikes in the folktale when the Sorcerer hears of Aladdin’s good fortune and dresses up as a used-lamp salesman, tricking Aladdin’s wife into trading away the magic lamp. Here is where the stories all diverge dramatically. In the folktale, Aladdin has his palace and wife stolen away by the Sorcerer and uses a second magic item to sneak in and steal the lamp back. Disney’s Aladdin has to first overcome his own character flaw, in this case lying to Jasmine about who he is before he’s emotionally ready to save the day.

But Wish Dragon takes a step in a different direction. Contemporary circumstances — wealth, status — make a relationship between them difficult, if not impossible. No evil magician here, just the brutal, cold, lonely march toward success that tramples everyone. And it is precisely that pursuit that drives Li Na’s father, Mr. Wong (Will Yun Lee), to hire our Sorcerer in this story, a white-suited kung-fu assassin credited as Pockets (Aaron Yoo), to find the magic teapot that grants wishes, and can save Mr. Wong’s company from bankruptcy. That same greed inevitably leads to Pockets’ betrayal of Mr. Wong and the beginning of Wish Dragon’s own third act, which is ultimately resolved like Aladdin 1992’s: with the third and final wish.

Wealth is, for its part, a huge theme in all versions of the story. In the original story, Aladdin wishes for wealth because poverty in the Middle Ages means probable starvation. The value of that wealth is never questioned; gold is gold and buys you nice things like a palace and a marriage to a princess in a patriarchally run sultanate. Disney’s version turns to the “money can’t buy happiness” message of the post-Reagan ’90s, implying that wealth is completely uncorrelated to happiness. Very little attention is paid to the fact that Aladdin gets to move into the palace now and doesn’t have to worry about where his next meal is coming from. All he had to do was be himself!

Wish Dragon takes a different tack. As noted above, both the original and Disney versions of Aladdin jump straight into the magic world to resolve their stories. Aladdin classic uses his other djinn (by the way, he had another one) to magically sneak into the Sorcerer’s palace where he has his wife sneak sedatives into the Sorcerer’s drink, then just takes the lamp back himself. Disney uses some magical Chekov’s Gun to trick Jaffar into being trapped in a lamp himself. Both Aladdins are characterized by cleverness as their heroic trait.

Din is different. He is characterized by his pure-heartedness, his lack of greed. Not once does he wish for wealth or possessions, aside from as a means to an end. The moment he almost does is characterized as his moment of greatest weakness, his journey to hell and back. Wish Dragon frames wealth in the complex ways that the concept has grown since the folktale’s days when gold meant survival. The pursuit of wealth brings about only tragedy, and Pockets’ ultimate greedy wish leads to his downfall. Yet, wealth is not without importance, as Aladdin 1992 seems to imply; income stratification is on display in Wish Dragon in contemporary and realistic ways, a consequence of the real-life rapid economic and developmental expansion that has characterized the last decade in mainland China.

Thanks to Western interpretations, the vast majority of retellings, adaptations, and versions of Aladdin take on an Arabic visual influence. And to be honest, all the book burnings in the history of human civilization, it’s pretty impressive that this centuries-old story has made it this far into modern times as intact as it has. Wish Dragon reflects that global journey. It is a film that has once again redefined this ancient classic and brought it into modern times for a truly interconnected world.

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