Sony // 2008 // 88 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // August 6th, 2008
"Well, it's not quite a mop, not quite a puppet." -- Homer Simpson's description of a Muppet that, handily, also describes CJ7 quite well.
The star of over fifty films, Steven Chow has seen his move into directing earn him greater recognition than acting alone. With his 2001 comedy Shaolin Soccer, Chow saw his work gaining recognition from Western audiences, something that the gloriously over-the-top Kung Fu Hustle built upon.
Chow's fifth film behind the camera, CJ7, marks a change of direction for the writer/director and sees Chow turn full circle, back to the film that started his ambition to make movies in the first place, E.T. Steven Spielberg's timeless classic struck a chord with Chow, who made repeat visits to the local theatre showing the movie. As he sat transfixed by the story of Elliot and his alien friend, Chow began to absorb the many nuances of Spielberg's work, planting the seed of inspiration that now, some twenty-plus years later, comes to fruition in CJ7.
Chow Ti (Stephen Chow) and his son, Dicky Chow (Xu Jiao), live a meager existence. Working endless hours as a laborer at a building site, Chow Ti struggles to keep his son in private schooling, determined that Dicky will be given every opportunity to better himself and earn the chances in life that Chow Ti never had.
With most of his earnings going towards school fees, there is little left for luxuries like food and clothing; Chow Ti does most of his shopping in the local rubbish tip. From old television sets to battered old trainers for Dicky's gym class, the stuff on the tip helps Chow Ti get by.
Feeling guilty that he cannot afford to buy his son the latest toys, Chow Ti is delighted when, during one of his regular visits to the tip, he discovers an odd-looking ball; he takes it home for Dicky. Initially far from impressed, Dicky is surprised when the ball transforms into a small alien creature; he christens it CJ7. Chaos ensues.
Steven Chow's move into more Spielbergian territory is something of a curate's egg. Destined to divide audiences, at least those aged over 8 years old, CJ7 is nevertheless a delightful tale that won me over in spite of its obvious flaws.
Creating something with its own feel while working in the shadow of Spielberg's E.T. puts Chow under great pressure and leaves himself open to even greater scrutiny. Though not lifting the structure of Spielberg's E.T. wholesale, CJ7 certainly isn't ashamed to wear its influence on its sleeve. The danger being, of course, that Chow runs the risk of being labeled a plagiarist if he stays too close to Spielberg's formula. Worse still, slipping up in this genre could see Chow labeled as the guy who made the next Mac and Me, and nobody wants that, do they?
To fully appreciate CJ7 means handing oneself over to Chow completely and letting him tell you his story, a story that moves in rhythms that may be a little alien (pun intended) to some viewers. As with many films coming from Asia, CJ7 takes a familiar Hollywood theme, and molds it into something a little more distinct. Suffering from a mild dose of schizophrenia, CJ7 mixes a heart-warming family tale with bizarre Kung Fu Hustle-style martial-arts clashes and slapstick comedy sequences that border on Looney Tunes levels of mayhem.
Though the film's title character is an adorable creation -- part puppy dog, part Flubber -- it's actually a cunning ruse to get children interested. Strip away the fancy packaging, and at its core, CJ7 tells a simple story about the importance of integrity and the value of our loved ones, while noting the evils of materialism. Though these messages are sometimes overstated, the film's good nature earns it a pass.
As with most films of its ilk, CJ7 goes to some fairly dark places, some that youngsters (or even more sensitive adults) are likely find distressing. Though a good-natured kid, Dicky is not impervious to the cruel jibes he faces on a daily basis at school. When CJ7 comes along, Dicky believes his troubles are over and that his new friend will make everything right. When the truth turns out to be more than a little different, Dicky's frustrations get the better of him, and CJ7 takes the brunt of his pent-up anger. This sequence is affecting for two reasons: on the one hand, you have the undeniably cute, and ever-loving CJ7 being horrendously mistreated; on the other, you see the sensitive Dicky Chow fall apart. That you can guess everything will turn out okay in the end does little to soften the blow.
Visually, Chow excels. Fans will find many similarities to his previous efforts, while also acknowledging a few new flourishes that see Chow continue to grow as a filmmaker. Possessing a keen eye for the cinematic, Chow creates an almost cartoon-like world where schoolchildren possess superhuman strength, UFO sightings are a regular occurrence, and there is always the hope that something magical might fall from the skies to lift us from the mundane.
Xu Jiao, a 9-year-old in the pivotal role of Dicky Chow, is nothing short of a revelation. To say Jiao has an expressive face is a huge understatement. Apparently fully aware of when to underplay the emotion and when to go all-out, Jiao gives a performance that betters most of her peers. No, that's not a typo; the role of Dicky Chow is indeed played by a girl.
CJ7 comes on a pretty packed disc. First, and perhaps most importantly for a kids' film, the English dub is actually very good. Unlike many dubs of foreign films that destroy the original work (see Ichi the Killer for a prime example), the voice actors here do a fine job, fully capturing the spirit of the film. An energetic commentary track is backed up by several features, from the "Anatomy of a Scene" featurette that reveals the work that what went into the CGI to the questionable "How to Bully a Bully."
A 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer contains good levels of detail, with occasional softness being the only cause of concern.
There are frequent stutters in CJ7's narrative, with the same material being reworked over and over, to ensure the film gets its message across. Running at a mere 88 minutes, these repetitious moments are brought to the fore and reveal either a lack of material, or more likely, Chow struggling to keep things simple while simultaneously making sure kids can keep up with what is going on.
CJ7 also struggles to maintain a consistent flow, jumping from kid-friendly hijinks one minute to startlingly traumatic the next. Once you've adjusted to the film's rhythm, this becomes less of an issue, but it's easy to see how some will level this as a criticism against the film.
Perhaps against my better judgment, I found myself enjoying CJ7 far more than I expected to. Yes, it is all a little bit too cutesy-pooh at times, and yes, the story is as threadbare as Dicky Chow's trainers, but it maintains a distinct charm all of its own which, when coupled with Chow's trademark action sequences and that damn irresistible critter, make CJ7 a must for Stephen Chow fans and worth a punt for adults looking for something a little different for their kids.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Chinese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "The Story of CJ7"
* Cast and Crew Commentary
* "How to Bully a Bully"
* "How to Make a Lollipop"
* CJ7: Mission Control Game
* CJ7: TV Special
* "Anatomy of a Scene"
* CJ7: Profiles
* Official Site