It's taking a lot of restraint to hold back an "out of your gourd" quip about Secret of the Magic Gourd. Nevertheless, this quirky little Chinese picture takes annoyance to a staggering level, blending the cookie-cutter family film formula together with eye-scorching magical elements in a way that resembles mixing oil and water. Both excessive and predictable, you'll find nothing you haven't seen before in Magic Gourd -- except, of course, a magic talking gourd. Even that, however, is uninteresting.
Based off of a famous Chinese tale, Secret of the Magic Gourd feels like Aladdin and The Spiderwick Chronicles thrown together in a blender, only with the charm, cheeky humor, and gripping visuals sucked clean from the mix. It follows a misunderstood, lazy boy in China as he yanks out a talking magic gourd while fishing. He's a wish-granting genie of sorts, one with next to no limits as long as his master doesn't tell anyone about his existence. Anything the lonely, tormented little boy could want -- from a barrel full of fish to the ability to fly -- is at his fingertips. Of course, as with any kind of magical secret interwoven into the modern world, things begin to go awry as the boy uses the gourd as an easy substitute for hard work.
Differing from the somewhat like-minded Bridge to Terabithia or Neverending Story, Secret of the Magic Gourd does very little to develop a relationship between the audience and the lead character. Ultimately, we invest ourselves in Jess and Leslie from one and Bastian from the other, which makes the opportunity for them to dive into a world of immeasurable possibilities an endearing experience. Our lead character is performed well enough, but the script give him very little opportunity to make a connection with the audience. What results is an array of granted wishes for a character that we have little affinity with, which defers any form of cinematic enjoyment straight to the flashiness that accompanies his whims. Since the film takes a happenstance tone as the gourd screws up even the smallest of his wishes, this connection can be masked a little. Ultimately, we just don't care enough about the story to appreciate the hard work vs. easy fix resolve behind it all.
It doesn't help that the bolder special effects aren't all that gripping either. Now, there's a digital frog strategically placed throughout the film that moves around in plenty of eye-pleasing ways -- and he's actually done quite well in spots, especially as he trollops through the woods. Equally hit-and-miss are special effects surrounding animated toys and a few other inanimate-made-animated objects. But basically everything alive -- the dinosaurs, the fish, and especially the Magic Gourd himself -- are all crafted with one thing in mind: keep the childrens' idle minds occupied and pray that the adults won't mind. When this generation of parents grew up with the likes of Jim Henson's fantasy tales and the aforementioned story of Bastian, it's infuriating to anyone with a mind for more whimsical and well-refined cinematic yarns.
Secret of the Magic Gourd might still entertain children based solely on its mind-numbing CG confetti and bright, colorful characters, but the lack of imagination present here in this ridiculously fantastical environment is baffling. That might sound a little paradoxical, but it makes sense once you've seen how little energy sits behind the repeated stabs at half-hearted, slapstick magic within this simple-motived picture. Even magic has a slate of rules to follow in cinema: it's got to have heart, soul, and some form of realism at its core to identify with the audience. While it's true that the film sneaks in some flickers of the "you don't need magic to accomplish great things" idea, especially at the end, the film ultimately feels like it has very little momentum behind its direction. Proceed only if the family-friendly well is completely dry.
Video and Audio:
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks fine here, aptly textures and very film-like. There's plenty of motion present in Secrets of the Magic Gourd, all of which are handled in sweeping fashion and with no noticeable ghosting. Digital garbling occurs in far-off faces and densely-detailed areas, but nothing that's too off-putting. Colors stay natural, enhancement if very minimal, and the film's bold palette shows off an ample helping of gradation through the mildly dusty-looking image.
Audio-wise, we've got three Dolby Digital surround tracks -- Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Not surprisingly, the English option sounds a bit better than the other tracks, but the original Mandarin track showcases plenty of apt surround elements and strong cinematic properties. Vocal clarity never sinks to inaudible levels -- though the post-production re-recorded voicing matches oddly with the spoken scenes -- while the sound effects give the lower and mid-range frequencies a mild workout. The music is mixed oddly as well, sitting at a much louder level than the other elements. It a fine-sounding film, but nothing too extroadinary. Only optional English subs are available with the picture.
Making of Secert of the Magic Gourd (28:26):
Standing out as a standard assembly featurette, it takes us through the many facets of China's first Disney co-production. Music, visual effects, casting, and location shots all find focus, following some discussion about the source material and its inspiring content. Blending footage with the film and interview time, it's fairly standard -- but gives a few glimpses into the film if you're interested.
Also available are a series of Bloopers, a Chinese Music Video (which was arguably more entertaining than the movie itself), and an interactive match-up Game. Oh, and one more thing: a series of Disney promo spots are available for the likes of Pinocchio and Bolt -- but the most exciting of them all is a "Coming Soon" spot for a Black Cauldron Special Edition DVD.
Secret of the Magic Gourd might have Disney's hand amid its production, but it pales in comparison to many of the House of Mouse's endearing family-friendly fantasies. Kids will probably find something entrancing about the gourd and the mediocre special effects, but these same effects don't translate well to the adults in the crowd. You'd be better off Skipping Secret of the Magic Gourd and going after several of the aforementioned film in the review -- namely Bridge of Terabithia and Spiderwick Chronicles with modern flare or The Neverending Story for nostalgia's sake. Much better can be found if this is the genre that you're aiming for, but it's questionable whether this would even be worth a rental even if all other options were completely exhausted.