The first Chinese
Walt Disney film, The Magic Gourd is a co-production
with Hong Kong computer effects firm Centro (as well
as the China Film Group, whose head recently called
for more "ethically inspiring movies") that's even
co-directed by its founder John Chu. At the risk of
rendering the following review worthless, I admit
that there are at least two types of movies that are
truly critic-proof: idol movies and Disney movies.
It wouldn't be fair to critically analyze The Magic
Gourd because the filmmakers obviously put pleasing
the kids at a higher priority than being artistically
successful. So perhaps the film would be best judged
in the perspective of an adult who might have to sit
through this bland hybrid of Aladdin and your
typical Chinese special effects extravaganza.
Based on a classic Chinese
children's novel, the live-action flick is about bumbling
young kid Wang Bo (just the first in a bunch of two-letter
names typical in Mainland Chinese films), whose daydreaming
habits have made him a bit of a failure in both his
academic and social lives. Falling asleep after hearing
his grandmother tell the story of a wish-granting
gourd - this is important because they have to reassure
you that such mystical creatures cannot be real in
Mainland Chinese films - Wang Bo dreams of going to
the lake nearby to fish. Instead, he pulls said magic
gourd out of the water. With the promise of having
every wish come true without having to do an ounce
of work, Wang immediately becomes the gourd's master.
But before that ever happens,
Hong Kong star Gigi Leung shows up in a thankless
role as Wang's teacher to tell everyone that "there's
no such thing as an unearned reward". Essentially,
that is the lesson of The Magic Gourd delivered
in the safest and most Chinese government-approved
way possible: by a responsible and friendly educator.
Most of the things that Wang Bo wishes for eventually
bring unforeseen consequences. Wang Bo wants to get
into a sold-out movie with dinosaurs, so the gourd
literally puts him into the movie next to a T-Rex.
Wang Bo wants to "eat" his opponent's chess piece
(the Chinese say "eat" instead of "capture" in chess),
so the gourd literally puts the chess pieces into
his mouth. Wang Bo wants toys, so the gourd has every
toy from the toy store move to his room. That's the
basic structure of the film: boy wants something,
gourd screws up, the kids laugh, repeat as needed.
That's not to say that The
Magic Gourd is a failure due to its redundancy.
For what it is, the film is actually mildly amusing.
The three screenwriters put some imagination into
the film, especially with the various gourd-related
screw-ups. Plus, Disney obviously spent a lot of money
on making their first non-American production, as
the film looks as technically accomplished as they
come, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography throughout.
However, Centro's work here is far too ambitious for
its own good. The effects house did revolutionary
work in the late-90s with some of the first CGI-dominated
flicks in Hong Kong cinema such as Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero. They've come a long
way since then, with their last notable effort being
Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle. This time, their
effects appear in at least 80% of the film, mainly
in the form of the magic gourd itself and the fantastic
things that it does.
However, the gourd only comes
with two beady eyes and a really flexible mouth. In
other words, there's not enough in the animation to
create a character that comes to life on its own.
Instead, the Cantonese dub I watched relied on the
voice of Hong Kong acting god Lau Ching-Wan to give
life to the gourd, and Lau earns every dollar of his
salary with an amusing voice performance that's better
than any live-action acting in the film. If not for
Lau, the title character would have seemed more like
a piece of fecal matter with human features than a
kid's favorite grant-wishing buddy.
While The Magic Gourd may not be the breakthrough Centro had hoped for,
the children at the screening I attended were obviously
amused throughout, and I even heard a few laughs from
the adults. Despite the effects work being far from
convincing, Centro does pull off the fantasy aspect
well from time to time. You will laugh, you might
cry (mos of the time the well-meaning-but-underappreciated
gourd is sadly more sympathetic than main focus Wang
Bo), and you might even learn something. As far as
children's entertainment go, The Magic Gourd does the job with a passing grade. And even if it
doesn't, at least it's only 80 painless minutes long.
(Kevin Ma 2007)