When your target audience is Chinese-speaking first-graders, the prospects for big box-office bucks in the United States are slim. Especially if you're peddling a low-rent, Hong Kong version of E.T.

There's no doubt Stephen Chow is a skilled director. 2004's Kung Fu Hustle was probably the craziest action film to come along in a decade. Its opening 10 minutes — a frenzied mix of hatchet violence and dance choreography — was worth the price of admission alone. His Shaolin Soccer was similarly extreme, pushing a Disney-style sports flick into the realm of the patently absurd.

But Chow's films have always relied on loopy charm and rambunctious energy to cover up gaping holes in logic and craft. So, when the children's TV host-turned-filmmaker starts curbing his hyperactive zaniness in favor of tepid sentimentality, the results are predictably disappointing.

Little Dicky (Xu Jiao cross-dressing as a boy) comes from the slums, where his hard-working dad, Li (Chow), scrapes together every cent they have to send him to private school. Unfortunately, Dicky, in his soiled uniform and tattered shoes, is scorned by both teachers and students. Worse, he's getting poor grades. One night, while rummaging through the garbage dump, Li discovers a strange green ball, which he mistakes for a toy and gives to his son. Before you can say Pokémon, a fur-headed alien with rubbery legs and peculiar powers pops out. Problems and high jinks ensue, lessons are learned and eventually everyone's life gets a little bit better. Except, of course, for the grown-ups who drag their kids to see this subtitled mess.

It's odd that Chow would make a film aimed squarely at children and subdue his trademark exuberance. If there's a place his mania could call home it's in a kiddie flick. CJ7 proves the exact opposite.

Though there's little doubt that Chow's heart is in the right place — his empathy for the poor reflects his own humble upbringing — the film's humor and energy is weighed down by a heavy, moralizing tone. He takes his cue from Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, but never shifts gears from the comic to the tragic; silly scenes involving alien poo sit uncomfortably beside the heart-clenching bathos of parental death.

But CJ7 has its charms. There are deliriously inventive moments sprinkled throughout and it handles some hard truths with more finesse than most kid's movies. But Chow has traded the unpredictable surprises and distinctively weird turns of his earlier work for oversimplified poignancy and heavy-handed messages about respect. It's an ill fit for a guy who once filmed himself getting punched so hard he flew past God.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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