Chang Can Dunk is the latest Disney film that explores what it means to live in high school as an underdog and the overall challenge of somehow growing up while finding your place in the modern world. The main storyline set seems quite simple with 16-year-old Chang making a bet with the popular kid that he can slam dunk within a few weeks just to prove himself to his peers. Yet, while the story seems like your typical sports-drama, director Jingyi Shao uses it more as a template to explore some heavy-hitting themes.
On the surface level, Chang Can Dunk seems rather superficial as its main hero portrayed by Bloom Li goes out of his way to impress a girl. As the popular basketball kid starts hitting on her, he awkwardly tries to get her attention before making a bet he can’t really back out from. It becomes a classic underdog story of a young kid proving to himself and everyone around him that he’s not worth ignoring.
Without giving away any major spoilers, what makes this Disney+ original so interesting is that the film keeps its focus tight on Chang’s overall character arc. We don’t get this happy-go-lucky home life as his mother is overworking herself and doesn’t show any active interest in what he cares for. We don’t often see a mother and son that drifted apart as much as they did, but their acts of desperation in how they show concern for the other.
Technically, Chang’s struggle of connecting with his mother is at the core of the story, and it’s also the strongest element at play. It’s similar to how Turning Red challenges the overprotectiveness of parents that can end up pushing them away, or simply alienating them from the high expectations put upon them. There’s also the cultural relevance of that pressure that adds to the overarching message.
We see Chang build a rather strong support system around him with some of the highlights just being him hanging out with his best friend Bo (Ben Wan), his mentor De-Andre (Dexter Darden), and Kirsty (Zoe Renee). It’s especially sweet to see the way he connects with De-Andre, who was a former pro-basketball player that lost his dream, and the way it further strengthens the dangers of popularity and fame.
The film has a strong focus on going viral online, and it’s not just a tool for some creative shot composition. They truly go all out with the concept, as Bo becomes this vocal point of evolving the way he films online videos that just add a few creative and unique shots to make the film stand out. Overall, the film has some really strong shots and makes good use of empty space to highlight headspace of Chang at times. Of course, it’s also carried by Bloom Li‘s performance who can sell the highs of falling into the beauty of stardom and the depression of feeling alone.
The only real drag on the overall story is the cliché it is built around. It feels like a project that wants to subvert the usual stories we see in high school-focused sports dramas. The moment a classic trope is unveiled, the film actually surprises by pushing the story into a whole new direction focusing on the actual core narrative that was more sidelined up to that point. We don’t harp too long on the misbegotten actions, as eventually, people forgive those they care about. It’s sometimes family that has the hardest time forgiving themselves.
The message overall is powerful and makes the film stand out. It just struggles through the clichés at times and ends up dragging out the reveal that just sticks too much to the cliché. It had me dreading the moment due to how predictable it was and it still happened exactly how it is set up. It’s saved by what happens after but it still feels like it fell into the cliché pool rather than just dipping its toes.
The film is definitely worth a shot for those that love these types of films, especially once the story starts coming together. Jingyi Shao definitely offers an inspiring story that should not be missed out on. It may sometimes fall a little too far into clichés and isn’t the slam dunk it truly could be, there’s something special about this project that makes it worth watching. It’s a perfect watch for a young audience that may not yet know the dangers of online fame and trying to fit in.