After his first decade as a Hong Kong TV and film actor, Stephen Chow became a star and entered a period of insane prolificacy, cramming up to eight movies into a single year. But after a few years as a writer-director, he slowed down considerably, and his latest projects—2001's Shaolin Soccer, 2004's Kung-Fu Hustle, and 2008's CJ7—have arrived at long intervals. There's no sign that the extra time is going into careful craft; his films are still ramshackle, spastic comedies. But the increased incorporation of CGI effects that turn live actors into bouncing, stretching, squashing cartoons has doubtless eaten a lot of production time. The new CJ7 follows the trend, with the film's most compelling character being entirely a CGI creation. But it also shows signs that Chow is trying to put more thought and heart into his films, with uneven success.
Chow has been moving steadily closer to the background since his 1999 film The King Of Comedy, and in CJ7, he takes a supporting role as a desperately poor dad who wants better things for his son (played by a girl, first-timer Jiao Xu). Chow's strict moral guidelines have made a deep impression on Xu, who claims to want to grow up to be "a poor person," because they're proud and honest. But while Chow is killing himself to send Xu to a classy private school, he can't afford new clothes, shoes, or the latest robot toy popular among Xu's preening classmates. So he brings Xu a weird object from the dump, which turns out to be a rubbery little alien critter, dropped off by an itinerant spaceship.
C7J isn't as cutesy as Batteries Not Included or Short Circuit, or as grim as Gremlins, though it resembles them all in its jerky, semi-comic look at the havoc and helpfulness of weirdo artificial life. It also resembles past Chow films, complete with exaggerated martial-arts-based combat and low humor, here involving booger-eating and a handful of shit to the face. But the emotional violence—dead parents, crippling poverty, creepy amounts of cute-alien abuse—is surprisingly vivid, which hinders the humor. Fortunately, Xu proves to be a resilient, charismatic performer, whose struggle between adult ethics and a childhood desire to be popular, admired, and not beaten by bullies is fairly poignant. Compared with Chow's other recent films, CJ7 tries significantly harder to make audiences care about the characters instead of just the gags, even though a few of those gags are howl-out-loud hilarious. But it's hard for pathos and poop to comfortably co-exist on one screen.