Over the span of its century-long reign in the entertainment industry, Disney has made countless films about what it means to be “the underdog.” While some have been about actual dogs – see Air Bud or their 2007 film literally titled Underdog – most have been straight-forward sports dramas. Their latest film, Chang Can Dunk, is thankfully the latter. But its unique approach to the genre and what all modern underdogs face in the era of social media is ironically proof that even old dogs like Disney can learn new tricks.
The film follows an unpopular high school sophomore by the name of Bernard Chang who loves the sport of basketball yet lacks the skill to play it as well as any of his idols. When an old friend-turned-rival teases Chang about his inability to play the sport, the two make a bet. Either Chang proves he can dunk in front of the whole school by homecoming, or he must forfeit his most valuable possession: a vintage Pokémon card. An admittedly silly wager, it challenges Chang to achieve one of his biggest goals while shattering everyone else’s expectations of him in the process.
Now, throughout the entire first act, the direction, the dialogue and even the stakes feel ripped straight from an early 2000s Disney Channel Original Movie. That’s not necessarily a con though because it’s through some of those cliches that you feel the film’s heart. For example, early on there’s a party that Chang attends where he gets into a fight with the film’s antagonist Matt. The fight happens in front of Chang’s crush, Kristy, and ends with him being tossed into a pool. It checks off almost every high school movie stereotype in a matter of minutes, but it’s executed so well by director Jingyi Shao that you feel Chang’s pain. When he rises from that pool, you see that it’s less of a moment of embarrassment and more of a baptism that drives him to become the best version of himself.
Newcomer Bloom Yi shines as Chang. Not only does he do a great job capturing all of his bottled up frustration and angst in the beginning, but he does a great job at “transforming” as the film goes on too. Similar to the shadowless Charizard card he wagers, Chang also has three stages in the film. Each time he evolves, he has new characteristics that may or may not improve his life. Regardless of how good or bad things get, Yi plays the character with an absolute humanity that only ever keeps the audience rooting for him to succeed.
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Neither Chang or Yi would be successful in any capacity without the strong support of his co-stars. Newcomer Ben Wang plays Chang’s best friend Bo in the film. Like most best friends, he is not only Chang’s voice of reason but also Chang’s biggest critic throughout. It is a somewhat small role, but in every minute of his screen time, Wang is so memorable and likable that you can’t help but want more. The good news is that he’s the star of Disney’s upcoming series American Born Chinese, so audiences won’t have to wait as long to see the full extent of his talent.
Additionally, Dexter Darden, who most will either recognize from The Maze Runner or Peacock’s short-lived Saved by the Bell reboot, gives arguably one of the most wholesome performances in a Disney film ever. He plays Deandre, a talented basketball player who works a dead-end job at the mall. He winds up training Chang to be a better basketball player. While it initially feels like he might have something to gain from training Chang, it’s not until a monologue in the third act that you learn that he sees Chang’s success as his own. Having realized the limits of his own skills, he sees Chang as a way to continue his legacy. It’s a quiet, yet surprisingly beautiful performance that rarely ever appears in a film like this.
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Strong performances aside, the film’s examination of generational trauma is another thing that sets it apart from so many other films in Disney’s catalog. On top of the pressures Chang is dealing with in school, at home he’s still recovering from his parents’ separation. At one point, it’s revealed that Chang’s dad has left his mom for the umpteenth time. While the lack of a father figure clearly weighs on him, he insists that it doesn’t because his dad eventually always comes back. What he comes to learn, however, is how much his father’s departure(s) also impact his mom. So on top of breaking free from his own feelings of inadequacy, he must also break the cycle of his mom’s sadness. But along the way he realizes that the two stem from similar roots.
Chang Can Dunk isn’t a total “slam dunk”, but it scores a lot more shots than it should. Being Shao’s directorial debut it’s especially impressive because it takes a lot of respected risks. Cute animated title cards across the film aside, the tone shift in the second act is a brilliant lesson in underestimation that mirrors Chang’s entire journey. What might start off as your average coming-of-age story is something far superior by halftime: a testament to the power of pure belief.
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