The pint-size heroes of The Dragon Pearl battle greedy thieves and come face to face with a centuries-old dragon, but their biggest challenge may be overcoming a pair of skeptical/clueless parents. It’s a familiar plot device in kid-centric adventures, yet it’s one I’m becoming more sensitive to as I get older. For example, I was absolutely sure at an early age that the bumbling Wet Bandits were the bad guys in Home Alone; however, as I’ve grown older and not-necessarily wiser, I realize the real villains are the nincompoops who left little Kevin McCallister behind in the first place. To be fair, the parents in this film are being asked to swallow a much more fantastical story.
The Dragon Pearl opens with a prologue about an ancient Chinese emperor who enlisted a celestial dragon’s power to help him fend off warring tribes. The source of the dragon’s power is the titular pearl, which is said to be lost in the heat of the battle. In the present day, we’re introduced to sullen Australian teen Josh (Louis Corbett) and outgoing Chinese teen Ling (Li Lin Jin). Josh and Ling are meeting up with their respective parents, Dr. Chris Chase (Sam Neill) and Dr. Li (Wang Ji), on what Josh assumes will be a boring archeological dig in China. (He should’ve known better: having Sam Neill at an archeological dig is a recipe for excitement.)
Instead, Ling’s unique ability to hear a certain tune being played on a flute and Josh’s puzzle-solving prowess lead them to an underground chamber, where they encounter a Chinese dragon. As Ling explores her ancestry, Josh unsuccessfully tries to convince his estranged dad about what they saw. The kids are eventually threatened by a traitorous bad guy who is very clearly telegraphed from the beginning. (This is a kids film, so I’m not mad at director Mario Andreacchio for keeping things simple instead of trying to spring a Shyamalan-like twist on us.)
The Dragon Pearl is the first treaty co-production between China and Australia, meaning the finished product is fully regarded as both a Chinese and Australian production. (Principal filming took place in China’s massive Hengdian World Studios — which hosted 2002’s Hero and 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom — while post-production took place in Australia.) That distinction is most noticeable in the film’s depiction of the dragon. Most of us are familiar with the western depiction of dragons, who breathe fire and have hot moms. Chinese dragons, we learn, are more soulful creatures in tune with nature. The Dragon Pearl doesn’t have a blockbuster budget, but its presentation of the dragon is still effective. This is especially true when it comes to the creature’s fluid movements in flight and during early scenes where we only get glimpses of its body; the dragon’s face, not surprisingly, shades toward being cartoony so it doesn’t disturb kids.
The totally predictable story is presented with a surprising amount of maturity during the first two-thirds of the film. Corbett is particularly impressive in his portrayal of a surly teen mad at his soon-to-be-divorced dad for breaking up their home. I appreciated that the film had Dr. Chase at least try to humor his son when Josh came to him with his cockamamie dragon story. I also liked how the filmmakers didn’t try to force a tween romance between Josh and Ling into the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the film devolves into a weird combination of 3 Ninjas-style slapstick (the kids pull off some laughable action moves to evade the bad guys) and surprisingly intense action (one of Josh and Ling’s key allies gets stabbed) during the final act. Still, this is an entertaining family film with a worthwhile message about — as the tagline says — “finding courage when no one believes.”