Shaolin Soccer is built on spectacle rather than tight plotting, with Stephen Chow using digital effects to give a new spin (in every sense) to the traditional kung fu film. As in previous generations of martial arts films, the key here is the big "fight" scenes rather than the sometimes less-than-fully-coherent filler material, which is scattershot and, not incidentally, often very amusing. Much of this material disappears in the heavily edited American version of the film, which loses in charm much more than it gains in streamlined narration. There's a fine wit at work throughout the film, playing with the traditions of martial arts films in affectionate ways, whether it's the goalkeeper who channels the spirit of Bruce Lee or the characters who, when confronted with another multi-talented team, are convinced the trickery must be the result of "wires".
Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Chow is a great connoisseur of oddball faces: there's quite a gallery of unusual physiognomies on display here, with the camera often just inches from the visages in question. Those more naturally cartoonish elements are often more successful than some of the CGI effects, which are less than seamlessly integrated with the "real" action, seeming to occupy different physical spaces (similarly, the CGI crowds at the soccer matches are devoid of atmosphere). Beyond all of the trickery, though, is a concern with those who are being left behind in a modern, upwardly mobile society; there's a surprisingly serious core to the portrait of the soccer players in bustling Shanghai, and the final sequence makes their triumph the more satisfying.