Film Review: Disney’s “Chang Can Dunk” is Heartwarmingly Fun

Gusteau, the chef in Pixar’s Ratatouille, empowered Remy the rat to believe he could assemble ingredients into culinary masterpieces with the phrase “anyone can cook.” The late Kobe Bryant made a similar statement about strategy when it comes to using a slam dunk, saying “when you dunk all the time it isn’t as demoralizing to the opponent, but when you dunk at a key moment in the game you can use it to change the momentum.” In Chang Can Dunk, a new Disney+ original movie now streaming, the title character isn’t as disillusioned as Remy, but he certainly tries to take his hero’s quote and apply it to his life.

(Stephanie Mei-Ling/Disney)

(Stephanie Mei-Ling/Disney)

Chang (Bloom Li) is a 16-year-old boy who strives for good grades and volunteers at his single mother’s hospital with his best friend Bo (Ben Wang), which doesn’t leave much time for his real passion, basketball. When he is assigned to mentor new student Kristy (Zoe Renee), Chang quickly develops a crush, which makes it even harder when his rival and school basketball star Matt (Chase Liefeld) tries to make a play for Kristy’s affection. When tensions between Chang and Matt reach their peak, Chang bets that he, at 5’8″, will be able to do a slam dunk on the gym’s basketball hoop by the end of the season, setting off events that will forever change his life.

Chang Can Dunk has elements of both a teen rom-com and a sports drama, striving for a tone that is both fun and heartfelt. Chang is a sympathetic character, although the narrative also takes him to disastrous level of hubris. Like Into the Woods, it has a midway psych-out where it seems like the story has reached its natural happy ending, only to have the rug pulled out with another act to follow.

One of the film’s strengths is Dexter Darden as Chang’s personal trainer Deandre. In real life, Darden is a former pro basketball player who crossed over into acting. His enthusiasm for both the sport and the character are evident in every scene, becoming this film’s equivalent of a Mr. Miyagi, complete with seemingly unconventional approaches to getting more lift in a jump.

The film somewhat suffers from some incongruous pacing, especially surrounding the mid-point tonal shift. It’s also clear that at one point in time this was targeting a PG-13 rating, with an obviously censored-out swear word and a high school party full of red solo cups, with no mention of what anyone is drinking. Still, aside from some implied underage alcohol, there’s nothing for parents to object to. Chang has a dream, works hard to achieve it, makes a mistake, and then works hard to set things right. In the end, it’s a heartwarming and enjoyable morality tale for today’s youth.

I give Chang Can Dunk 4 out of 5 bags of cement mix.

Chang Can Dunk is now streaming on Disney+.

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