Josh (played by newcomer Louis Corbett) anticipated a boring trip to see his father, Chris Chase (the always reliable Sam Neill), on an archaeological dig in China. At the airport, the boy is surprised to be picked up by Dr. Li (Wang Ji) instead of his old man; but Li is also retrieving her own daughter, Ling (Li Lin Jin), who will also be spending the summer there. They make fast friends, especially when they together stumble across a secret they share: there’s a dragon living beneath an old temple. According to legend, the dragon is missing its life source – a glowing `pearl’ that, in the wrong hands, can bring the world to its knees. Josh and Ling will join forces to find the pearl and see it returned to its rightful owner before the forces of evil can use it to do their bidding.
Knowing nothing about it except that the story took place in China I thought it would be a good waste of an evening. It was. A waste, that is. There is a long standing tradition among American film viewers that, with rare exception, any movie with the word “dragon” in its title is going to be disappointing. The Dragon Pearl is not one of those exceptions. The entire thing feels like it was written, cast, and directed by a high school drama team. The story is bland and predictable, following the typical adventure theme. The characters were cookie cutter clones of every adventure movie character we’ve seen. The actors might as well be made of cardboard for all the emotion they showed.
The dragon itself amazed me. It wasn’t very good (it looked like a plastic toy) but the amount of fluidity to its movement was excellent. It swam through the air, curling around itself, almost like a slow moving eel. They really should have textured it better. Sam Neil was in it and didn’t want to be – story line is way too predictable with typical parent/kid relationships – action sequences really should be left out, they are awful. Filmed in Hengdian World Studios (Forbidden Kingdom featuring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, Zhang Yimou’s Hero etc), the sets involving the underground emperor’s tomb and the golden dragon’s cave are very convincing. Perhaps that is the only redeeming factor I can attribute to this flick.
Of course, the inclusion of Sam Neill in THE DRAGON PEARL’s cast will draw comparisons to this film and that Steven Spielberg film involving dinosaurs, but PEARL is a much more modest picture. A joint effort between Australia and China, Pearl is relatively light on effects but big on heart, in much the same way so many other Spielberg pictures are. I imagine the idea was to combine the beauty and artistry of the Chinese cinema and give it a plot that won’t confuse westerners who don’t understand the real complexity of good and evil. The film did not do as well of a job as I had hoped. I can’t imagine a lot of kids wanting to see this more than once. I did like the drumming at the end during the credit roll. Might make for a rental on family night.