The Magic Aster -- Film Review

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SHANGHAI -- A battle between good and evil is waged for the sake of a wee petal in "The Magic Aster," an animated Chinese fairy tale so devoid of fun or personality that it only feels quaint.

Shanghai Animation Film Studio, which jointly produced this with other Chinese partners, will find it tough to foist the $2.19 million project onto foreign shores except for the odd children's channel. For Chinese-speaking viewers, the animation's star-loaded vocal lineup that includes Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, pop-king Leon Lai ("Forever Enthralled") and supermodel-turned-actress Lin Chi-ling ("Red Cliff") may be its biggest bonus.

The story is set in some indistinct ancient time in China. On an idyllic mountain blossoming with exotic flora and fauna lives Malang (Leon Lai), a kind of Chinese Tarzan. He is keeper of the magic aster, a lilac-like flower with legendary powers of bestowing happiness upon its owner.

Malang rescues an old man (Yao Ming) who strayed into the mountain and promptly falls in love with his daughter, Xiaolan (Chen Hao). He goes courting her with presents of melons and a choir of singing frogs. Dalan (Lin Chi-ling), Xiaolan's materialistic twin sister, opens the door, and is unimpressed. Lin, who speaks with an insouciant sex-kitten drawl, imbues the improbable mistaken identity farce with unexpected feminine allure.

Meanwhile, a witch threatens to destroy the area's wild life balance by overrunning everywhere with vines and creepers. She uses some trinkets to bribe Dalan into stealing the magic aster. Malang and his animal pals fight against the witch's hydra-like killer vines in drawn-out finale.

Although some 3D technology has been integrated into the movements, the figures generally look flat. The art direction favors a pastel color palette and draws on Chinese ink brush painting to create some pretty, dreamy natural scenery. Overall the oriental aesthetic is not distinctive, and makes one nostalgic for the stylishly abstract early classics made by Shanghai Animation Film Studio, like "Uproar in Heaven."

This fairy tale is adapted from a vintage children's play in China's revolutionary '50s. The original's Socialist doctrinal indictment of materialistic greed is downplayed, and overshadowed by an environmentalist stance. However, since the villainess is not invested with any allegorical attributes that represents concrete endangerment to the ecosystem, be it industrialization or deforestation, the message is ill-defined.

Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Production and sales companies: Shanghai Film Group, Shanghai Animation Film Studio, Xiamen Shangchen Science and Technology Company, Shanghai Chengtai Investment Management Company
Cast: Leon Lai, Chen Hao, Lin Chiling, Yao Ming
Director: Yao Guanghua
Screenwriters: Yao Guanghua, Pu Shu, Sun Lintao, Hu Ranqing
Based on the play by: Ren Deyao
Presented by: Ren Zhonglun, Kang Ning, Shi Derong, Hou Xiaomin
Producers: Wang Tianyun, Ma Zhongqi
Music: Shi Jiayang
No rating, 82 minutes