"The Secret of the Magic Gourd" (2007) was Disney's first co-production intended for a Chinese audience, and while the studio pronounced it a success, it only raked in a tenth of what "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" earned there its opening weekend. Why, is no secret. The John Chu film is aimed solely at children--specifically, I would say, ages six through nine.
Adapted from a time-honored classic in Chinese children's literature by Zhang Tianyi, "The Magic Gourd" (as it was called in China) is a simple fable about a lazy 11-year-old schoolboy who would rather dream than work and seems content to be a modest failure. He scoffs at the stories his caretaker grandmother tells his younger sister--the one he heard growing up about a magic gourd that would grant every wish, like a vegetable-matter Aladdin's lamp--and he doesn't even seem motivated by peer pressure to contribute to group projects at school. But one day he's led by birds and an anthropomorphic frog to a hidden lake, where he catches a gourd that walks, talks, and never balks. Like a genie, this gourd is there to please--to satisfy "Master's" every wish, whether verbalized or simply thought. And like the genie in Disney's "Aladdin," he can be a little overzealous, and his attempts to help end up hurting instead.
So there's nothing stupendously new in the story itself, and the moral--gain without pain is unsatisfying--is so obvious in every scene that adults (and even older children) will find it didactic or (at best) predictable. Another stumbling block for U.S. audiences is the dubbing. "High School Musical" star Corbin Bleu was recruited to give voice to the Gourd, but the rest are unknowns and children who are unaccustomed to dubbed films may find the gap between what they hear and how the lips move a little unsettling. With any animated feature, though--and this one combines live-action with animation--the bottom line is usually the quality of animation and the characters themselves. How unique are they? How interesting? How cute? How endearing? While the special effects and live-action/animation merge was accomplished enough, I personally found the character design to be bland and unimaginative. I know, how much can you do with a gourd? But it's so unadorned that it looks as if the lazy boy were given an assignment to carve a gourd for Halloween and took the easy way out: a round mouth, two round eye-holes, and two nondescript little arms and legs. Come on, that's the first thing anyone would try! Compare that to either of the "Toy Story" movies and you realize how much more personality and originality the filmmakers were able to incorporate into common objects. That's my biggest complaint about "The Secret of the Magic Gourd": the character itself.
But there are some positives, too. For one thing, American audiences may find it fascinating to see inside the houses and schools of their Asian counterparts--to watch the uniformed children interact and follow the little boy dubbed "Raymond" as he bicycles through bamboo forests or peruses a local toy store that has zero American products in evidence. Filmed in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China, "The Secret of the Magic Gourd" has value for primary-grade teachers looking for a film that can provoke discussion. Even social interaction is a subject that's ripe for comment. There's teasing, sure, but even after Raymond accidentally breaks one of his classmates' projects or was accused of stealing a girl's test, the students still demonstrate how much they care about their friend. That's because "you don't let friends down" is another moral of "The Secret of the Magic Gourd." The tale itself, though obvious, is heartfelt, and the film deserves some applause for that.
Another plus is the seamless integration of animation and live-action. The film's showcase scene, in which fish swim through the air above young Raymond's head while his gourd-genie is at his side is a perfect example. It's as good as we've seen in animation and live-action interfacing. But as I said, when the main animated character disappoints, it affects the way you feel about the whole film. Same with sequences (Raymond being taken for a ride on an airplane) that's reminiscent of so many other scenes that came before it. Ultimately, there just isn't enough in this film that feels original for me to give it more than a 6 out of 10. Yet, as I said, children in the target age range should enjoy "The Secret of the Magic Gourd," and parents could use it as a teaching moment.
There's very little grain in this print, and the kind of bright, vivid colors that you hope for in a film for children. With sharp edge detail, it's the kind of picture that's worthy of its magical content. "The Secret of the Magic Gourd" is presented in a letterboxed 2.35:1 aspect ratio that's been "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions.
The audio options are English, Mandarin, or Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and though each soundtrack is free of hiss, crackle, or other distortion, I'd have to say that it's not a dynamic audio and the rear speakers don't get terribly involved. The only subtitle option is English for the hearing impaired, which means that people who prefer to watch a film in its original language can do so, though you'll get descriptions of sounds as well as the dialogue in subtitles.
The bonus features are scant, but they include a game which pretty much confirms the intended audience. It's a find-the-shape game in which you have to match an outline of a toy with a full-color 3-D toy below, using the arrow keys and then pressing "enter." This game did not play on my stand-alone Samsung Blu-ray unit, but worked fine on our Macintosh computer. Also included is a very short blooper reel and an equally short behind-the-scenes feature that tells briefly the background for the story and then (unfortunately) launches into summary mode with clips from the movie. The best feature is actually a music video for "World of Wonder" that features a young Chinese girl and Chinese audio and subtitles. It's always fascinating to see how other parts of the world get their daily dose of Disney.
Disney pronounced this a "modest success," and that's probably a good way to describe it. "The Magic Gourd" may hold more meaning for those who grew up reading the beloved Chinese children's book, but the film doesn't travel enough new ground to make the magic come alive for anyone but young children.