Stephen Chow’s attempt to conquer the American market continues with CJ7, a whimsical, effects-heavy, sci-ficomedy. Chow, “the Jim Carrey of Asia,” has starred in over 40 films and directed eight, but few of them—heavily dependant on Cantonese wordplay and unspeakably broad comedy—have made an impression outside Hong Kong.With Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Chow replaced much of his colloquial sensibility with universally accessible material: special effects, elaborate action sequences, and over-the-top visual comedy. He was rewarded with strong reviews and worldwide box office receipts, but CJ7 won’t do much to broaden his appeal. While Chow’s vivid imagination is still on display, this time his sloppiness gets the better of him.
Chow’s screen-time in CJ7 is surprisingly minimal. The real star is child actor Xu Jiao, who’s a cute little kid. He plays Dicky, the oft-bullied son of a poor construction worker named Ti (Chow). Dicky wants a high-tech toy called a CJ1, and is dismayed when Ti can’t afford it. Later that evening, during his daily search through the local dump, Ti finds a green egg deposited by a nearby spaceship, and gives it to Dicky, calling it a “CJ7.” But wait, it gets better—the egg hatches and CJ7 turns out to be a green, squishy, super-dog from outer space.Chow has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Silly scenes and moments of cloying sentimentality clash jarringly, and when the inevitable tragic situation arises three quarters of the way in, it’s hard to care. Characters never extend beyond broad archetypes. And while Kung Fu Hustle intentionally pushed aside story for rapid-fire comedy, in a film with “heart” like CJ7, the script is undercooked.Like Chow’s last two films, CJ7 uses CGI to a hyper-stylized, downright cartoonish extent. The CJ7 character is entirely computer generated, and it’s fun to watch. There are moments where CGI is used to create truly excellent gags, as CJ7 pulls a little toolbox out of nowhere, and makes Dicky a pair of high-tech shoes. Still, Chow is a hit-and-miss comedian, and this time his odds are off. Typical joke: one of Dicky’s schoolmates is a girl played by a massive, 250-pound man. Ho ho. This is the type of goofiness that goes over big in Hong Kong and doesn’t travel well overseas…except to kids.But will kids see this? Sony Pictures Classics is making the drastic mistake of marketing CJ7 to art house audiences instead of families. A subtitled version is opening in limited release, the trailer attached to the beginning of The Counterfeiters of all things. Strange tactics, because the grade school set might like it. But it’s no Kung Fu Hustle; it’s gentler, less chaotic, and, frankly, less enjoyable.