‘American Born Chinese’ Review: We’re All Walt’s Children

Disney’s adaptation of this groundbreaking graphic novel finds the teenage action drama that lurked inside the deconstruction of immigrant identity.

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By Mike Hale

When it came out 17 years ago, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel “American Born Chinese” was singular in several ways: for its focus on everyday Asian American characters; for the way it used Chinese mythology to amplify and deepen its story of immigrant anomie and identity; and for the collagelike, stop-and-start manner in which it told the story. It was, perhaps, more worthy than exciting, but both its novelty and its seriousness made it stand out.

The eight-episode Disney+ series “American Born Chinese,” very loosely based on Yang’s book, premieres on Wednesday in, if not a different world, then in a very different pop-culture environment. Its Asianness is notable but not novel; two members of its cast, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, won Oscars in March (and a third, Stephanie Hsu, was nominated) for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the latest landmark in the Asian or Asian-themed film-music-television wave. That the list of writers and directors for “American Born Chinese” is almost entirely Asian is, in 2023, an expectation rather than a surprise.

All of which is a long way of getting to the point that while “American Born Chinese” offers a number of things you could expect — a textured depiction of first- and second-generation immigrant suburban life, a flashy incorporation of characters from the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” a critique of Hollywood’s history of racist depictions of Asians — those things no longer define, or delimit, the experience of watching it or thinking about it. The operative word here isn’t American or Chinese but Disney. And the fusion that matters the most isn’t the one between East and West but the entirely commercial one between high school dramedy and martial-arts-inflected superhero action.

So the somewhat disappointing report is that after 17 years, “American Born Chinese” is an entirely typical half-hour teenage comic-drama-supernatural adventure series. On the good side, the family at its core — the teenager Jin Wang (Ben Wang) and his parents, Christine and Simon (Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han) — are sensitively drawn and given excellent performances, and the naturalistic parts of the story that focus on their home life and Jin’s struggles at school often have humor and a quiet but sure emotional pull.

That the traditional family story is the show’s strongest feature makes sense given that Kelvin Yu, who created “American Born Chinese,” is a longtime producer and writer for “Bob’s Burgers,” the Fox animated comedy that for more than a decade has been the funniest, sharpest, sweetest show on TV about the American family.

On the down side are the elements of the show that reflect the tripartite structure of the graphic novel. They’re assembled with polish and cleverness, but they’re not as imaginative or compelling as they would need to be to kick the series out of its better-than-average groove.

The mythological plot, a modern sequel to the Monkey King’s story in “Journey to the West,” has been incorporated fully into the present-day story and normalized, in Disney-Marvel fashion, as an alternately jokey and violent best-friends adventure with plenty of special effects, martial-arts wire work and creature makeup. The Monkey King’s son, Wei-chen (Jim Liu), comes to earth on a quest that involves Jin; the supernatural story points are skillfully but not very inventively tied into the usual teen-drama checklist — pep rally, pool party, big game — leading to a loud “save the high school” finale.

Well-known performers like Ronny Chieng, James Hong, Hsu and Jimmy O. Yang play gods and demons, but the characters are broadly drawn and hard to enliven, even in a nearly episode-long sequence set in heaven and styled as a Shaw Brothers Hong Kong epic. Only Yeoh, wielding her preternatural charm and agile humor as the goddess Guanyin, makes much of an impression.

Also wedged into the series — presumably standing in for the conceptualized section of the graphic novel that featured a shape-shifting character provocatively named Chin-Kee — are scenes from an invented, decades-old sitcom starring a heavily stereotyped, Long Duk Dong-like Asian nerd (played by Quan). This element eventually breaks out of its show-within-the-show confines and emerges into the story proper, making explicit the series’s otherwise more subtle points about racism and stereotyping. But it does so in a mannered and self-conscious way. (The series as a whole feels as if it were carrying out a Disneyesque balancing act when it comes to racism; in Jin’s high school experience, aggressions are continually portrayed as a result of cluelessness rather than bigotry or anger.)

Easy to watch but just as easy not to watch, “American Born Chinese” strives to charm you in ways that may work or may make you wince from their familiarity. Asianness is indicated by gags — deftly delivered — about saving soy sauce packets and not loading up on rice; Teresa Teng pops up on the soundtrack when sentiment is called for. What it demonstrates most clearly is that in the contemporary marketplace, coming-of-age clichés move easily across cultural boundaries.

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