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WISH DRAGON – Philip Klein

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Wish Dragon is a Chinese-made animated film, written and directed by American filmmaker Chris Appelhans. It’s essentially a re-working of the classic Aladdin story, transposed from the Middle East to China, and featuring a dragon rather than a genie. The film follows the adventures of Din, a working-class college student from Shanghai, who dreams of reuniting with his childhood friend Li Na, who now lives a privileged life in a different city with her wealthy family. Din’s luck changes when he comes into possession of a magic teapot, out of which emerges a bright pink ‘wish dragon’ named Long, a powerful creature capable of granting wishes to its master. So begins an adventure, as Din makes wishes intended to help him rekindle his romance with Li Na, while also evading a gang of ‘goons’ sent to steal the teapot from him by a mysterious and shadowy figure. The film features the voices of Jimmy Wong, John Cho, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, and Constance Wu, and was a popular success in Chinese cinemas when it opened there back in January. It has now finally hit American markets, premiering on Netflix to general acclaim, with special praise given to the film’s colorful animation style.

The score for Wish Dragon is by the exceptionally talented young American composer Philip Klein, and is his sophomore effort as a lead composer after The Last Full Measure last year. Klein has been orchestrating and writing additional music for several of Hollywood’s top composers for many years; his most regular collaborator was James Newton Howard, but he also worked with and for composers as diverse as Geoff Zanelli, Harry Gregson-Williams, Steve Jablonsky, and Carter Burwell, most notably writing a large amount of action music for The Finest Hours and Twilight: Breaking Dawn. The Last Full Measure was a superb score, a powerful and emotional combination of 1990s Thomas Newman and 1990s James Horner, with all the positive connotations those comparisons bring. Wish Dragon is a different type of score entirely, but it proves that Klein is no flash in the pan, as it impresses on multiple levels.

The score is written for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Utah Film Choir, with featured solo parts for pianos, guitars, and a series of regional specialty instruments, including the Chinese ruan lute, the Vietnamese đàn bầu zither, and the Chinese sheng bamboo mouth organ, and is striking in its scope and depth. It is structured around a series of recurring themes, one or more of which are playing at virtually every point in the score, although the busy nature of the music is such that they are often difficult to pick out. The score’s two main themes are for Long and Din, the lovelorn young man and the wise dragon who befriends him, and they follow the pair on their adventures, altering their style and instrumental makeup as the score progresses.

You can hear both themes in the opening cue, “Prologue,” with Long’s theme arranged for the full orchestra beginning at 0:52, and Din’s theme heard high in celesta and bells at 2:03. Long’s theme is heroic and noble, with a sense of scale and gravitas, but also a large amount of miraculous wonderment as befits a magical creature such as he is. Din’s theme, on the other hand, is a little more frivolous and playful, but also has an undercurrent of melancholy, speaking to the character’s feelings of lost love and general frustration at his lot in life.

Both these themes get a lot of play time throughout the score, and there are several especially satisfying statements. There’s a lovely performance of Din’s theme in “All Dressed Up” for a wistful piano, before it gets the full hero treatment towards the end of “Shanghai Showdown”. Later, in “That Same Old Shikumen,” Din’s theme dances elegantly between woodwinds and strings, backed by strummed guitars. Meanwhile, Long’s theme appears arranged for warm horns in “The Tea Is Ready,” with swashbuckling flamboyancy all through “Aerial Acrobatics,” and with sensitivity and understated emotion in “Long Admits,” a superb of intelligent orchestration that moves the theme between woodwinds, bells, and a soft choir.

There is also a 4-note theme for the Goons who track Long and Din and continually try to steal the magic teapot, which can be heard prominently in “The Goons,” the action-heavy “Finder’s Keepers,” “Shanghai Showdown,” and towards the end of the darkly dramatic “Certain Expectations”. The Goons theme is more rhythmic, and a little threatening, often making use of pulsating electronic tonalities alongside the orchestra and the breathy Chinese specialty instruments. A brief love theme for Din and Li Na appears in both “Li Na Says Goodbye” and “Din and Li Na,” which is really lovely, a tender cascade of textures that involve welcoming woodwinds, gentle strings, and sparkling romantic accents. Later, in “That Same Old Shikumen,” the same theme is arranged as a duet for guitars and piano to excellent effect.

What’s perhaps most impressive about the score is the orchestration, which is really quite outstanding. Devotees of James Newton Howard’s recent light fantasy scores – Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, even parts of The Hunger Games scores – will find many subtle echoes and allusions in Wish Dragon, leading one to wonder whether it was Howard who had a major impact on Klein’s style, or vice versa. There is a sense of gentle enchantment to everything, from the subtle wash of chimes and bells that can often be heard in the background, to the way the chord progressions and choral accents constantly evoke a sense of wonderment. This is especially notable in the opening “Prologue,” parts of the aforementioned “The Tea Is Ready,” and the flamboyant and fulsome “Aerial Acrobatics” (which clearly wants to have the same vibrant spirit as How to Train Your Dragon). I also really like the busy and upbeat spirit of “Shanghai,” the use of intense chanting voices in “Finder’s Keepers” and “Shanghai Showdown,” the charming light comedy in “City Walk,” and the unexpected throwback to Alan Silvestri and Back to the Future in the opening moments of “That Same Old Shikumen”.

However, some people may also find themselves somewhat frustrated by the ‘mickey mousey’ nature of some of the score, as it tends to jump from idea to idea constantly. Klein was clearly dictated by the pacing, the editing, and the tonal changes in the film’s storyline, but despite these mitigating circumstances the score clearly suffers from a touch of musical ADD, and I know from experience that some people find this off-putting and distracting. When the main themes are not playing the score is often awash in jaunty rhythmic ideas and light prancing textures, some of which occasionally recall the trilling effervescence of Thomas Newman’s Pixar scores like Wall-E or Finding Nemo.

In “The Wish Dragon” a lovely new harmonic variation on Long’s theme is heard for the first time, representing his revelations to Din about his true nature and his destiny. This leads into what is probably the score’s most impressive action set piece, “Teapot Battle,” in which Din’s theme, Long’s theme, the Goons theme, and even the Din & Li Na love theme receive rousing statements, often in complicated counterpoint against each other. The brass writing in this cue is notably impressive, as first one theme and then another gets its moment in the sun, as the various parties vie for control of the titular beverage-holder. Klein’s writing here is outstanding, filled with dense orchestrations (including bubbling electronics and Chinese specialty instruments), swirling strings, intensely rhythmic percussive passages, heavenly choral outbursts, and yet more echoes of James Newton Howard’s classic fantasy-action scores, especially Waterworld.

The final three cues – “True Sacrifice,” “My Last Wish,” and “Everything That Matters/The End” – are the ones where Klein really goes for the emotional jugular, performing all the main themes at least once with the weight of the full orchestra behind them. The performance of Long’s theme at 0:45 in “True Sacrifice” is just magnificent, as are its several recapitulations with angelic choral accents all through “My Last Wish.” This cue underscores the film’s pivotal climax, during which one of the main characters makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his friend. “Everything That Matters/The End” is mostly a fantasy on Din’s theme, encompassing statements for piano, oboe, synths, strings, guitar, and choir, as he settles into his new life with Li Na and remembers his dragon friend.

The two part “A Tale As Old As Time” is an end credits suite of all the score’s main thematic ideas, and “Din’s Piano” is a solo piano rendition of the character’s theme performed by Daniel A. Brown. The album is rounded out by two original songs: “Endless Sky” performed in both English and Chinese by Katherine Ho, Wendy Wang, and Kenton Chen, and “Free Smiles” performed by Chinese pop star Tia Ray in collaboration with the hip-hop group Far East Movement.

Despite having just two above-the-title scores to his name, Philip Klein is already well on his way to fully establishing himself as one of film music’s most exciting and talented newcomers. He is also clearly positioning himself as their heir apparent of composers like James Newton Howard, Alan Silvestri, and those other master practitioners of full and lush orchestral scores. Wish Dragon is a superb work, beautifully orchestrated, deftly structured, and emotionally strong. I personally would have preferred the main thematic ideas to have been a tiny bit more well defined, and I might have preferred a little less frivolous mickey-mousing, but these are small criticisms in the bigger scheme of things – you have to score the film put in front of you, and Philip Klein did it excellently. This guy is going to be a star.

Buy the Wish Dragon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Endless Sky (written by Maureen McDonald and Wendy Wang, performed by Katherine Ho, Wendy Wang, and Kenton Chen) (2:32)
  • Free Smiles (written by Kevin Nishimura, James Roh, and Virman Coquia, performed by Tia Ray and Far East Movement) (2:29)
  • Prologue (2:47)
  • Li Na Says Goodbye/Shanghai (2:30)
  • I Gotta Go (1:07)
  • The Goons (1:13)
  • All Dressed Up (1:58)
  • The Tea Is Ready (1:44)
  • Finders Keepers (2:45)
  • City Walk (2:33)
  • Aerial Acrobatics (2:02)
  • Din and Li Na (1:57)
  • Long Admits (2:24)
  • Din and Mom Argue (1:02)
  • Shanghai Showdown (2:57)
  • That Same Old Shikumen (3:01)
  • Certain Expectations (4:55)
  • The Wish Dragon (2:42)
  • Teapot Battle (5:47)
  • True Sacrifice (1:47)
  • My Last Wish (1:45)
  • Everything That Matters/The End (4:33)
  • A Tale As Old As Time (Suite I) (5:53)
  • A Tale as Old as Time (Suite II) (4:10)
  • Din’s Piano (2:29)

Running Time: 69 minutes 12 seconds

Milan (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Philip Klein. Performed by The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Utah Film Choir. Orchestrations by Daniel A. Brown, Weijun Chen, Penka Kouneva and George Oldziey. Featured musical soloists Seth Stachowski, Qichaoran Shang and Daniel A. Brown. Additional music by Jonathan Keith, Annie Rosevear and Jorge Salmay. Recorded and mixed by Graham Kennedy. Edited by Scott Johnson. Album produced by Philip Klein .

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  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:01 am

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