Stephen Chow’s earlier pictures—“Shaolin Soccer,” “Kung Fu Hustle”—were hardly masterpieces, but both had a loopy charm that helped to mitigate their messiness and make them mildly diverting. By contrast his new film is almost surrealistically bad, a weird “E.T.” clone that not only fails totally to delight but is even likely to creep you out. Maybe it’s just a cultural difference, but from this side of the Pacific “CJ7” seems just awful.
The young star of the picture is Xu Jiao, a girl who plays the trousers (or, more properly, short pants) role of Dicky, the son of dirt-poor widower (and construction worker) Ti (Chow), who furnishes his household shack by scavenging from dumps so that he can use his entire income on the boy’s tuition at a ritzy private school. There the tyke is bullied by the rich kids and browbeaten by his supercilious teacher Cao (Lee Sheung-ching), although kindly Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang) takes a special interest in him (and, as it becomes apparent, in his scruffy but lovable daddy, too). And there’s a big, beefy girl on campus who takes Dicky’s part against his tormenters (and their burly enforcer) after he defends her honor against them.
But that’s all just background. The real plot of “CJ7” kicks in when Ti brings home a gift for Dicky from the junkyard—a gooey green ball that just happens to have been left behind by a passing spaceship and that eventually transforms itself into a cute-as-a-button green space dog with big puppy eyes. Dicky imagines that it has magical powers it will use on his behalf, but things don’t turn out quite as he hopes. Further twists involve Dicky’s change to a more self-assertive (you might say bratty) kid and a terrible accident (slapstick though it might be) involving Ti on the job. CJ7, of course, proves to be the key to resolving all the problems before its spaceship returns.
Except for the problems in the movie’s script and execution, that is. There’s a makeshift quality to the story that eschews even the remotest logic, and the decision to play everything in the most exaggerated, cartoonish tone imaginable only makes it worse. Most of the subsidiary characters are nothing but shrill stereotypes, played under Chow’s heavy directorial hand as bluntly as they’re written. As for Chow himself, his talent for physical comedy is almost entirely wasted in a role that makes him a bland version of Chaplin’s little tramp. And then there’s Xu. She’s convincing as a boy, but not terribly endearing, with a habit of shrieking that grates unbelievably; she’s also way too dependent on double-takes and sudden goofy smiles that would have seemed crude in the days of silent short subjects. As to the CGI effects, they’re about of the caliber of Saturday morning kiddie TV shows. That is not intended as a compliment.
The title, incidentally, refers to the name given by Dicky to his new pet, a play on that of a toy robot dog called CJ1 that his chief nemesis at school owns. But the picture itself is a big fat zero, whatever your age.