IDAHO FALLS — At 16 years old and attending Idaho Falls High School, Chris Appelhans never imagined he could make a living drawing pictures and telling stories.
Most people he knew growing up didn’t believe he could make a career out of his passion either, telling him art was something he should do as a hobby while he pursued a career in science or medicine, said his father, Tony Appelhans.
But Chris kept pursuing his dream and now he has director and writer credits for one of the most popular animated films of 2021, “Wish Dragon,” produced by Sony Pictures Entertainment, a mega Hollywood production company.
“You can imagine as a kid living in Idaho Falls … I hardly understood you could make a living drawing pictures and telling stories,” Chris said.
Tony said it’s been fun to see his son prove a lot of people wrong.
“You can start in Eastern Idaho writing stories and drawing pictures and end up directing movies for major studios,” Tony said. “Not everybody’s going to do it, but it can be done.”
Art is the lens through which Chris views the world and it has always been an interest for him. Tony said he remembered a history assignment Chris had while he was in junior high school where instead of writing a report like his classmates, he created a graphic novel with two characters going through vignettes of what his class had been learning about.
“That was an example to me of how he thought about the world and how he connected to it,” Tony said.
With a little bit of luck and inspiration from a family friend, who showed Chris what he was working on in art school, Chris became motivated to pursue his dream of storytelling, he said. He worked to put a portfolio together by his senior year of high school so he could enroll in ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles, where he learned the skills he needed to break into the film industry.
After years of experience in the film industry as an artist and writer, Chris, who graduated from Idaho Falls High School in 1998, made his directorial debut with “Wish Dragon,” which was released in China in January 2021 and internationally in June. The movie is a Chinese-American children’s animated film about Din, a working-class college student who meets Long, a dragon capable of granting wishes, during his search for his long-lost childhood friend.
“Wish Dragon” was inspired by a friend Chris met in China 15 years before he started writing the movie. The film’s success, while satisfying for the first-time director, is not the biggest reward for Chris.
“My friend who inspired this whole journey was able to go see it in the movie theater,” Chris said. “I think he ended up seeing it 11 or 12 times while it was still in theaters. To know whatever story I told felt authentic to him — that it meant something to him — was personally really satisfying and the number one box I could check off on my list.”
Chris said about 10 years after he visited China, he was inspired to write “Wish Dragon,” which he based off his experience with the friend he made while there.
“By my mid-30s, it occurred to me that maybe it’d be a really cool version of the Aladdin story that you could set in modern China and reflect on some of the timeless aspects of the Aladdin story involving money and class,” he said. “They all seem very appropriate with the challenges of being a young person growing up in China.”
The film has garnered a positive reputation and was the fourth-most watched film on Netflix in 2021, according to the analytics website FlixPatrol. It was also Netflix’s most popular animation, according to FlixPatrol.
“Wish Dragon” was not Appelhans’ first time working on an animated production of this scope. He has worked as an artist on several animated films including “Monster House,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Coraline,” “Puss in Boots” and “The Angry Birds Movie,” among others.
Chris said he’s now working as an executive producer for a sequel to “Wish Dragon.” He’s also working on another project at Sony but cannot disclose what it is yet, he said.
“Wish Dragon” was released in China at the outset of the pandemic and, because of that, Chris was unable to go see it in China much to his disappointment.
But that hasn’t been the only way his career has been impacted by the pandemic. Film production, like most industries, has become much more difficult as the world has been dealing with COVID-19 although animated movies don’t have it as hard as traditional movies because there’s no live shooting involved, Chris said.
Animated productions are still a challenge because of the chemistry that a crew loses because it can’t meet in person and instead has to meet virtually through Zoom meetings, Chris said.
“If you’re a musician, the idea of jamming with your bandmates in your garage is a lot more appealing than all trying to log on to a Zoom call and trying to jam remotely,” he said.
An additional change brought on by the pandemic is the opportunity for smaller productions to reach more people. “Wish Dragon” was a film that benefited greatly from streaming services and had about a quarter of the budget that bigger animated movies typically have.
The streaming service industry has grown rapidly during the pandemic, with many people using streaming services to find entertainment while staying in their homes. Forbes reported in February 2021 that the average U.S. consumer pays for four different streaming video subscriptions and nearly one-quarter of U.S. consumers added at least one new paid streaming video service since the pandemic began.
Netflix’s stock has more than doubled since 2019 and closed at $508.25 on Thursday.
Chris said the trend of making films specifically for streaming as opposed to movie theaters is a positive one for smaller-budget filmmakers and allows more stories to be told.
“Projects that might’ve not otherwise gotten a chance will with streaming because they’re less risky and less expensive to make,” he said.
Although Chris has now lived in California longer than he’s lived in Idaho Falls, he still calls Idaho Falls home and comes back to visit multiple times a year, Tony said.
“He wants this to be a place that his family comes to love as well,” Tony said. “That says a good thing about Idaho Falls to me.”
Chris said he hopes his success inspires kids who are growing up in the Idaho Falls area or other small towns who want to pursue a career similar to his.
“The idea that you could become a storyteller and make work that gets seen by millions of people across the world — I certainly didn’t think that was a possibility when I was a kid,” Chris said. “I hope I can trigger this possibility for some kids and give them the motivation to shoot for that.”