Heavy on CGI slapstick and light on meaningful emotional content, “CJ7” is a spotty first foray into family-friendly entertainment by Hong Kong multihyphenate Stephen Chow. “E.T.”-inspired comic fantasy about a poor boy adopting a cute alien catches the eye but not fully the heart with itsundernourished father-son dynamics, critter hijinks and smattering of social commentary. Chow’s name has helped pic to an anticipated B.O. bonanza in China since Jan. 31 release, but his first movie since 2004’s “Kung Fu Hustle” faces a much stiffer test outside Asia. Limited Stateside rollout is set for March 7.
In an attempt to create the Chinese equivalent of a franchiseable Hollywood family blockbuster, Chow’s fifth helming effort has none of his nonsensical verbal humor and far fewer cartoonishly violent f/x setpieces. The star’s huge Asian fan base should roll more readily with these changes, but Western admirers looking for another “Shaolin Soccer” or “Kung Fu Hustle” won’t find it in this second venture between Chow’s the Star Overseas shingle and Sony’s Columbia Asia production arm.
Chow (who wrote the film with his usual army of co-scripters) plays it mostly straight as Ti, an impoverished-but-honest widower ploughing everything he earns into a posh elementary school education for young son Dicky (adorable discovery Xu Jiao, actually a girl).
In forced swipes at the gap between rich and poor, the raggedy Dicky is publicly derided by snooty teacher Mr. Cao (Lee Sheung-ching) and bullied by his classmates. Standing apart is Miss Yuen (newcomer Kitty Zhang), a teacher whose angelic kindness immediately tags her as Ti’s love interest-in-waiting.
Dicky incongruously throws a tantrum when dad won’t buy him a “CJ1,” the hot new robot-dog toy. But Ti’s substitute gift, found on a rubbish dump, turns out to be much better: a strange green orb that transforms into a cute little barking creature whose goo-goo eyes rival Puss in Boots from the “Shrek” sequels.
Left behind by a spaceship, the newcomer has magical powers to offer its host. In a fun series of f/x sequences, Dicky is able to suddenly swim like a speedboat, bend soccer balls better than Beckham and so forth. All this, however, turns out to be a dream sequence, and things turn out very differently when the same day is replayed for real.
As amusing as these shenanigans are, pic doesn’t pack much emotional punch in the second half, when dad discovers the space woofer and Dicky temporarily becomes a brat with his new-found powers. There’s no lone playground pal to give the boy reality checks that younger viewers would connect with, and the life-lessons dialogue between father and son lacks variation and bite.
Xu, 9, is completely believable as a boy and carries the day with a cheeky charm and a delightful way with the CGI pet that’s guaranteed to melt some viewers’ hearts on occasion. Chow doesn’t seem as relaxed as usual, and Zhang is short-changed with only a few perfunctory scenes. Other players do OK in primarily caricature roles.
Slickly filming in widescreen in Chow’s ancestral home — the port city of Ningbo, just south of Shanghai — Hong Kong lenser Poon Hang-seng emphasizes rich primary colors and even makes the garbage look nice. CGI work is fine, with the titular critter stretched, flattened and otherwise convincingly manipulated. In Cantonese version caught, dubbing of the Mandarin-mouthing Mainland members of the cast (who include Xu and Zhang) is variable.
The “CJ” in the English title refers to the Mandarin name for the Yangtze River (“Changjiang”), and is also a typical name attached to things like Chinese space probes.