Here we have one of those titles you can play a fun game with. The game? How many times did this take from 'Aladdin'. No word of a lie, that's basically what this is - a redo of the '92 Disney flick with similarities plastered all over the place, and subtle differences here and there. Right around the third act, this does sort of come into its own though, and I have to admit to enjoying some of the characters here - namely a couple of henchmen who are actually very sweet. It's one of those movies I see as a carbon copy of something else, but I'm not going to accuse it of being a terrible film either.
As the film opens, we soon meet Din (Jimmy Wong - even the lead's name is the last three letters of "Aladdin") and his new best friend, Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). We see them having an awesome time as kids together, but it's all interrupted when Li Na's father, Mr. Wang (Will Yun Lee) takes her away to start a life in the lap of luxury. Meanwhile, Din stays in his neighbourhood with his Mom (Constance Wu) and grows up to be a college student, but a bit of a slacker. He takes the time to visit a billboard with Li Na's grown up model face on it, and knowing she's coming to town, prepares a welcome-home gift for her. One day, Din is handed a teapot (magic lamp) that unleashes Long (John Cho); a wish dragon (genie) who tells Din all about how he'll grant him three wishes, as Din is his new master.
If things go well for Long, he will be released from his servitude - in 'Aladdin' it's about making it the final wish, but here, it's about Long serving his tenth and final master. This will ultimately give him access to the spirit world. Din's wishes pretty much revolve around him being good enough for Li Na; a woman of higher class, but more to have his former friend back as opposed to anything romantic (although the notion really still feels like it's there). Long even establishes the rules that include not being able to make people fall in love, and not being able to kill anyone. Not being able to bring people back from the dead ('Aladdin'), however, is replaced here with not being able to time travel.
Meanwhile, Wang has hired three henchmen to retrieve the magic teapot from this boy (who he doesn't recognize anymore) for his failing business. The henchmen probably are my favourite part of this, but are still fairly typical for cartoon characters. They are lead by a martial arts expert known as Pockets (Aaron Yoo) who constantly fights with his feet while his hands are in his pockets, and further consist of "Small Goon" (Jimmy O. Yang) and "Tall Goon" (Bobby Lee) who are there for the work, but would seemingly rather open up a pet store and sell cute little puppies. There's something about that polar opposite personality of what a goon should be that just gets me.
While this does seem to take a hell of a lot from 'Aladdin', I do think that this is a passable flick that embraces a good bit of Chinese culture here, and who's to say that this isn't just the Chinese version of 'Aladdin'? That sounds like an excuse, I know, but it did feel like the way Chinese culture might tell the same story. There's enough difference here that it can still separate itself and be its own thing. Think 'Avatar' vs 'Dances with Wolves', 'Pocahontas', 'Fern Gully', etc. 'Avatar' told a story we had seen before, but still managed to be its own execution of said story while blowing us away with visual effects. This doesn't blow us away with effects or much that's very special, but its embrace of the culture, including the voice acting, is what makes this one stand apart from 'Aladdin'.
While I can't say I loved it, and the whole 'Aladdin' thing does have me teetering on a fence, I think it's safe to say that there's still enough here to make this enjoyable. I can't deny that it made me laugh a few times - my favourite thing being a running gag involving the Small Goon making a funny sound every time he falls or wipes out. Sometimes it feels like it might be trying too hard with its humour, but it's easy enough to shrug off and remember that this is a Sony Animation family/kids movie, so there's bound to be a bit of cheesiness to it. At the end of the day, I might suggest that as a Netflix original, it's pretty much exactly where it belongs.