DVD Review: The Secret of the Magic Gourd (2007)

Walt Disney Delivers
This Magical Chinese Tale
to DVD on 1/27/09


After the lead of China's Film Group stated a wish to craft a future of "ethnically inspiring movies," the country's legendary CGI effects firm Centro and its founder John Chu (who served as a co-director) teamed up with Walt Disney Studios to put together Disney's first entirely Chinese production.

Releasing it alongside the forty-fifth anniversary of Walt Disney's landmark magical classic Mary Poppins and hitting DVD shelves to coincide with the advent of the Chinese New Year, The Secret of the Magic Gourd is now poised to enchant audiences here in the states after it became one of its native homeland's highest grossing family films of all time.

Loading the DVD with extras including a subtitled extensive making-of featurette that takes you behind the scenes along with a Chinese music video for the song "World of Wonder" as well as a fun game, Gourd is also set up with Disney's Fast Play option to get you right into the feature.

Although it's been dubbed into English with the American Disney kid friendly High School Musical star Corbin Bleu taking on the titular role and the characters have all been given decidedly American names making it seem initially odd to adult audiences and foreign film purists such as myself who would've preferred to read the subtitles and hear the original Mandarin (however, thankfully English, Mandarin, and Cantonese language tracks are included) it's easy to ignore as the imaginative, fresh, and inspired tale picks up.

Centering on a clumsy and often unlucky daydreaming student named Raymond (at least in this version) whose busy parents often leave him in the care of his grandmother, the young boy's fate changes after a particularly disastrous day at school when he goes fishing and manages to catch the same magical gourd often featured in the yarns spun by his grandmother.

The film, which is based on a popular Chinese children's novel seems to borrow heavily from fairy tales and the old genie in a bottle or as Kevin Ma wrote Aladdin like plot-- although in Raymond's case, he has unlimited access to wishes. However, soon the boy realizes that his luck will be changed as the gourd promises to obey the master who fished him out of the sea and solve any problem he has, grant every desire, and ease all trouble.

Of course, this all sounds much more convenient than it actually is as-- true to the spoken moral that "there's no such thing as a unearned award," as the film espouses excellent wisdom about the importance of hard work, friendship, and honesty-- soon Raymond finds himself in way over his head when the gourd misinterprets some simple wishes and manages to do more harm than good.

Wildly inventive special effects courtesy of Centro that still seems understated as the characters' plights and overall its moral tale are all much more important than the technical artistry-- while structurally it's a bit overly familiar at times as the repetitive and predictable nature of the plot-line bogs it down midway through its less than ninety minute running time, ultimately Gourd is a treasured import.

Additionally, it serves a great purpose in its homeland as well, as Disney China Managing Director Stanley Cheung revealed that aside from struggling with the government censorship of importing Mickey Mouse and other Disney classics into mainland China, the company attaches "great importance on finding locally relevant and appealing content which compliments our existing story values."

Moreover, with its release here in the United States, Gourd provides an intelligent, affable and exceedingly welcome diverse addition to the typically Caucasian focused Disney company by offering a gentle and uplifting tale that celebrates imagination, taking responsibility for one's own actions, and the idea that friends come in all shapes and sizes. All this of course, goes in tandem with offering children a terrific introduction to Chinese culture that will hopefully find them seeking out more work from the artistically rich country as they mature.

Thus, despite its flaws and predictability, it's still far richer than a great majority of live-action films aimed at our youth that are devoid of real value aside from inserting a toilet joke here or a disrespectful child there.

No, instead Gourd differentiates itself by telling children that it's okay to relish in the joy of simply being an imaginative child and that there will be plenty of time to grow up without having to hurry it as our media would like. And ultimately, in the end, what's more Walt Disney than the universal idea of wanting to wish on a star and never grow up-- at least for a little while?