His face smudged with dirt, adorable Dicky (Xu Jiao) hesitates as he enters the schoolyard at the start of the day. Before he can get to his classroom, he’s stopped by Mr. Cao (Lee Sheung Ching): “Why are you always so untidy?” Looking at once embarrassed and resigned, Dicky explains that he fell on his way to school. Another teacher, Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), intervenes, smiling gently bending to wipe Dicky’s face with her handkerchief, then sending him off to class. One by one, his peers pronounce their ambitions, to be rich entrepreneurs like their dads. Dicky also wants to emulate his father. “I want to be a poor person,” he says. The kids laugh at him.
The start of Stephen Chow’s “family film” reveals again the energetic generic revisionism for which he is renowned. Like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, CJ7 is irreverent, insightful, and punctuated by wildly imaginative visuals. Drawing from classic precursors (in this case, E.T. or Chaplin’s The Kid), it both celebrates Dicky’s resilience and makes spirited good fun of the corny tropes that define little kids in the movies. Even when taunted by his classmates, motherless Dicky is stubbornly proud of his construction worker father, Ti (played by Chow). “If you have integrity,” the boy says, “people will respect you even if you’re poor.”
For all his optimism, Dicky must contend with the bullies at school, who show off their wealth and privilege. Though he is regularly defended by the gargantuan girl Maggie (played by the adult male Han Yong Wua, in plaid jumper and barrettes), who has a crush on her fellow misfit, Dicky can’t help but succumb to peer pressures and expectations; he is, after all, a little boy (though Xu Jiao is in fact a nine-year-old actress). When one kid shows up with his new toy, a robotic dog called CJ1, Dicky is enchanted and envious, soon begging Ti to get him one of his own. Such luxuries are beyond their extremely meager means—visible in the tiny trailer where they live with cockroaches and the junkyard where dad seeks out other people’s discarded appliances. One evening, Ti finds a glowing green globe and brings it home, hoping to appease his son.
Unlike Ti, you know the globe has been left behind by an alien space ship. Appreciating Ti’s effort, Dicky brings his “amazing new toy” to school, where the bullies are predictably unimpressed: “That doesn’t look like fun to me,” one sniffs, while another notes that his dad “found it in the garbage.” Disappointed once again, Dicky heads home. But his efforts to discard the toy are thwarted by its sudden animation—the globe transforms into a maybe creepy, mostly cute, fuzzy-faced big-eyed creature. After an appropriate, brief panic (Dicky and the creature match wide-mouthed screams), Dicky names his new friend CJ7, dances with it exuberantly, and decides he now has the perfect one-upping new toy to bring to school. CJ7 has ideas of its own, however, and so Dicky doesn’t achieve quite the revenge he imagines. However supernatural its powers, Dicky’s “super-dog from outer space” needs the boy’s protection from the snarling alley dog who stalks them on the way to school; and if it conjures up a pair of gadgety glasses that help Dicky cheat on the test he didn’t study for, it doesn’t quite impress the bullies the way he had hoped.
Dicky’s adventures with CJ7 careen from broadly sentimental to fantastically antic, from traumatizing to loopy-cartoony violence (kids catapulted across the schoolyard, lunatic assaults that leave victims mostly unaffected, save for bruises and band-aids). As Dicky slowly comes to terms with his father’s moral lessons, he’s occasionally distracted by the temptations embodied by his more patently materialistic, less soulful peers.
Such education is pretty standard for kids’ movies. CJ7 acknowledges the clichés, sometimes embracing and sometimes satirizing the conventional depictions of kids and adults in family films. As the visitor from another planet observes, intervenes, and instructs, the father and son have to figure out how to see one another, not as mutually exclusive aliens, but as partners in their lives together, naïve and beleaguered, hopeful and durable.