Walt Disney's The Secret of the Magic Gourd
(chinese w/english sub .srt file)
(2007) GREAT Kids Movie !!!!!!
Disney's first fully Chinese production is mildly amusing, but Centro's work isn't as groundbreaking as they probably hoped it would be. Still, it's not a bad way for the kids to spend 80 minutes.
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)