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It came from planet Schmaltz

Chinese E.T. should still call home

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Do you hate it when a review more or less regurgitates the pitch that probably got the project green-lighted in the first place?

Yeah, me too: (E.T. times Stephen Chow) times (Po plus Pikachu) equals CJ7. I apologize, but there it is. The unsettling thing is that I wrote the above while sitting in the theater waiting for the movie to start. I based it solely on having seen the poster in the lobby on my way in. The surprise isn’t that the equation turned out to be roughly correct, but that writer-director Stephen Chow doesn’t aim to prove or disprove it. He sets out to embrace and transcend it.

A poor boy named Dicky (Jiao Xu) lives with his father, Ti (Chow, actor-director of Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer), in an urban ruin. Dad works construction jobs and shops at hazmat dump sites to keep Dicky enrolled in a fancy private school where he has a reputation for being unhygienic, although he’s really just a little muddy and smudgy. His mean beanpole of a teacher, Mr. Cao (Lee Sheung Ching Lee, a bespectacled Chinese Stephen Merchant), is so germ-o-phobic that he thinks Dicky is a pathogenic vector. A beautiful teacher, Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang), is sweetly sympathetic to Dicky’s tattered and, let’s face it, lovably grubby condition.

It helps that Dicky is, in fact, the most adorable creature in the universe. He is so cute and expressive that he’s more like a puppy than a boy. He even has fuzzy ears, which are illuminated like downy halos whenever he’s seen in close-up and he’s lit from behind, which is often. This, in itself, is an appealing and disarming trait, but Dicky — while flawed and tantrum-prone — also possesses a goofy, innocent charm that automatically triggers adults’ adoption instincts. (I was even more delighted to discover, after seeing the movie, that the child who plays him is not a boy at all but a precociously talented 9-year-old girl.)

The second-most adorable creature in the universe is the title character, who originally appears as a plastic glow-in-the-dark ball in a piece of fish netting. It’s like one of those glass floats they use for decor in seafood restaurants, but it’s squishy and it glows. Dicky’s dad finds it in a pile of trash among the abandoned computer monitors, TVs, refrigerators and illegally parked UFOs.

At first it’s nothing but a ball with a knob/plunger on the top. Or maybe that’s the bottom. Or the side. It’s a ball, so who can really say? After a while, it is transformed (perhaps by Dicky’s imagination?) into a kind of throbbing, light-emitting oversized molar, and then it turns into a furry-faced, chartreuse-bodied pet toy (part Pekingese, part Persian, part alien) with a waggy Po-tail sticking out of its head. Dicky, who has envied another boy’s CJ1 robo-dog, is stricken with hubris and boastingly christens his indescribably superior thingy a CJ7 — six generations of technological advancement over his classmate’s.

CJ7 is everything a kid could want: It’s a ball, it’s a dog, it’s a cat, it’s a friend, it’s a toy and it’s from outer space. In other words, a Furby from another planet, combined with Wilson from Cast Away. But Dicky is disappointed when he discovers some of its less superlative, low-tech features. It poops, for one thing.

Like any film (or life experience), CJ7 offers a mixed assortment of “messages” for children. On one hand, it seeks to show that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of and that integrity, repentance and forgiveness are more worthwhile values than competition or class status.

Chow’s movie does not seem to be a cynical marketing tool. However, the moment retail and fast-food outlets start pushing their own CJ7 toys made of potentially toxic materials, all its moral lessons will be rendered moot, and the movie will seem as crass and venal as Mac and Me.



Three stars

Starring: Jiao Xu, Stephen Chow, Kitty Zhang, Lee Sheung Ching and Fun Min Hun

Director: Stephen Chow

Rated: PG for language, thematic material, some rude humor and brief smoking

Theater: Capitol Theater today 9 p.m. and Friday 6:30 p.m.

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