Built around a 24-foot female crocodile and the boy who loves her, China’s entry into the CGI monster-movie sweepstakes opts for minimum gore and maximum camp. Part kid movie, part romantic comedy, part cops-vs.-crooks actioner and part “King Kong”-style man-vs.-nature allegory, “Million Dollar Crocodile” feels like a compendium of several popular genres, most played strictly for laughs, with effective if unscary f/x thrown in. Innocuous broad comedy proved a strange, much-contested choice for the Montreal World Film Festival’s opener, but the film may score as a something-for-everyone family pic in Asian-friendly markets.
Ten-year-old Xiaoxing (Ding Jiali) spends as much time as possible at a dilapidated crocodile farm, fearlessly wading into the water to make a pet of the huge Amao. But the farm’s croc-loving owner, Bald Liu (Shi Zhaoqi), is forced to sell his reptiles to Zhao (Lam Suet), who runs a restaurant illegally serving exotic animal fare.
Seeing the fate of her fellow reptiles, Amao escapes, crashing her way through fences and snacking on a butcher en route. She next attacks Yan (Barbie Hsu), a shrill, flashily dressed city girl, just missing her but swallowing her bag containing €100,000 (about $125,000), the hard-earned fruit of eight years’ work in Italy. Yan, desperate to reclaim her cash, latches on to the local policeman, “Useless” Wang (Guo Tao) in pursuit of the beast, their initially hostile relationship morphing romantically in the process. Xiaoxing, who happens to be Wang’s son, tags along, chiming in periodically to beg them not to kill his pet.
When restaurateur Zhao learns of the money-filled behemoth, he sets out with his none-too-bright minions in hot pursuit. Bald Liu, feeling responsible for Amao, tries to rescue her, and a madcap chase commences, pitting killers against saviors.
Helmer Lin Lisheng keeps the action moving relatively briskly, never letting the film sink into pure burlesque or bathetic sentimentality. Indeed, Lin invites auds to unabashedly enjoy the campy elements of his script, as when Amao sheds a shiny crocodile tear at the film’s emotional climax. The beast’s CGI-created movements come off as fairly credible, and its slow, textured rise in the water strikes an almost magical note. Thesping by the bumbling second stringers may be a culturally acquired taste, but the main characters, particularly Lam Suet’s greedy Zhao and Guo Tao’s unlikely hero, translate well.
Still, it would be hard to imagine a picture further removed from traditional arthouse/fest fare. Montreal’s bid for a strong Chinese connection (the fest is hosting a Chinese Industry Week) has led it into strange waters indeed.