“CJ7″ – A.J. Hakari

Like Ang Lee or Steven Soderbergh, you can’t fault Stephen Chow for not picking enough diverse projects. After delivering two magnum opi of sheer, martial arts-inspired craziness with Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow has performed a fairly daring 180 with his latest project, CJ7. This is a sci-fi twist on the tried and true “boy and his dog” formula, although to spice things up, the man performs a bit of sleight-of-hand, leading viewers down one route for a while before unveiling a few tricks of his own. Ultimately, CJ7 ends up at the same place the majority of flicks like it do, but for at least some of the time, its creators make an effort to give the audience a little extra something besides the same old song and dance.

Chow plays Ti, a hard-working laborer just trying to serve as a good example for his impressionable son Dicky (Jiao Xu — who’s actually a girl). Despite their almost cartoonish level of poverty, Ti continues to instill a good set of values in his little one, encouraging him to study and ignore the rich kids who taunt him with their expensive toys. While scavenging in the local dump one evening, Ti comes across an odd green ball that he brings home and gives to Dicky as a plaything. But the funky little orb turns out to be more than just a toy, as Dicky soon discovers it to be a sort of “superdog” from outer space. Though the fur-faced creature, which Dicky names “CJ7,” proves to be worthless at scaring away mean dogs and helping him ace his homework, the two quickly become the best of friends. But little does Dicky know of CJ7’s true power, a special ability that just might help Dicky out when his life takes a turn for the tragic.

Those who fell in love with the Looney Tunes sort of style Chow brought to his last two films may be in for a letdown with CJ7. Such elements are certainly present, what with scenes such as when an overgrown bully throws Dicky a good mile or two away. But they’re definitely not as prevalent throughout CJ7, as Chow prefers to play the majority of the story pretty straight. To liven up the proceedings, however, Chow injects the story with a bit of an edge that has it going against the grain of standard children’s films. Instead of being the expected deus ex machina that all too conveniently solves all of Dicky’s troubles, the flick gets a good bit of comedic mileage out of the fact that other than being unbearably cute at times, CJ7 really serves no purpose at all. It isn’t until the third act that CJ7 starts to make the transition into heartstring-tugging territory, spending the bulk of its running time riffing on corny kiddie flicks rather than bowing down to their conventions.

Unfortunately, once CJ7 heads down this road, viewers end up running head-first into one of the biggest cavalcades of schmaltz in recent years. Chow’s jarring about-face undermines the first two offbeat acts, as if he either chickened out of bringing the flick to a kooky close or simply painted himself into a corner and took the easy way out. Either way, CJ7’s final scenes are profoundly disappointing, not to mention pretty damn dark when you consider that the film is aimed at kids. It’s a real shame, as the film still relays a good set of lessons to the little ones (study hard, material possessions aren’t everything, etc.) while still playing against type. In fact, CJ7 isn’t necessarily a bad film all in all, especially when Jiao Xu does such a swell job of carrying the film on her plucky little shoulders. But this is a flick that betrays its own mission statement, making it feel as if all of Chow’s attempts to be different were for naught.

Nevertheless, there’s still enough charm for CJ7 to at least warrant a passing glance. It might have even been a minor masterpiece had it stuck to its game plan, but when stacked up against what passes for family entertainment on this side of the pond, CJ7’s unique qualities manage to shine through in a way crud like Bratz can only dream about.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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