I didn’t exactly grow up in the 1980’s (truth is I’m a bit older than that), but I really discovered my fascination with the movie-houses during that era. The twin geniuses of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were really at the height of their powers, producing the final two STAR WARS films of the original trilogy, the INDIANA JONES films, E.T., and the like. Of course, once they got going, other filmmakers jumped aboard that ‘family friendly’ train, and so many other outstanding feature films were produced in that same vein of entertainment. Sadly, flicks of that variety are in pretty short supply these days, and who wouldn’t embrace a welcome throwback to a time when pictures were more about bringing folks together than they were tearing them apart?
Fortunately, THE DRAGON PEARL revisits most of the sentiments of those features, and I have to guess that’s by design. It feels like a direct copy of so many scripts from that bygone era – not in a crash, quick, or cheap way, either. In fact, this one felt mighty nice.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come’, then read on …)
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.
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 (JURASSIC PARK), 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. Here, Neill plays second fiddle to the two children – Corbett and Jin – who more than carry their own weight as well as develop a budding chemistry that could probably support another picture (were anyone inclined to make them a franchise).
Despite being seeped in fantasy, PEARL confronts the real-world situation of kids from broken families, even tinkering lightly with how these children are often overlooked and/or not listened to by mothers and fathers too engrossed with work or other adult pursuits. The fact that no one listens to Josh and Ling’s stories – at one point, they’re not even fully hearing one another – is the cause of what propels our young heroes to go on their quest: if the adults in the room aren’t going to make things right, then they’ll have to do it. Apart, they can’t quite make it work, but together they’re like ‘Indiana Jones Junior’ and ‘His Girl Friday.’ These young stars make the picture work.
And PEARL isn’t without its comic relief. Indeed, Wu Dong (Jordan Chan) is a wayward soul who joins the children on their adventure. His family has guarded the secret involving the dragon and its magical pearl for centuries; once he realizes that Ling could be ‘a chosen one’ – one of few who can hear his mystical flute crying out to only those blessed with insight – he joins forces with them, and his bravery and courage figures prominently into the climax. Along the way, he serves up laughs mostly geared for the young ones in the audience, but I suspect even the young-at-heart might chuckle at his antics.
While not entirely perfect family entertainment (the conclusion amps up the action with a benign bicycle chase and some fight action), I found so much of PEARL to be a welcome throwback to those films from the 80’s where you knew who the bad guys were and you knew that the good guys were going to save the day. Having all of this layered with some terrific Chinese mysticism involving dragons and potential weapons of (magical) mass destruction was only icing on the cake so far as this reviewer is concerned.
(Additional note: Ketchup Entertainment will release THE DRAGON PEARL on DVD and Blu-Ray exclusively at Walmart on June 18, 2013. The DVD and Blu-Ray will be available in all locations starting on August 20, 2013.)
THE DRAGON PEARL is produced by Hengdian World Studios, AMPCO Films, Best FX (Boom Sound), and Sapo Investment. DVD distribution is being handled by Arc Entertainment. As for the technical specifications, PEARL is loaded with some terrific sights and sounds along with some very solid cinematography and modest special effects. As is often the case with these smaller releases, there are no special features to speak of – not that the kids would necessarily sit for ‘em – but the theatrical trailer is available.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. As family entertainment goes, you really can’t get much better than THE DRAGON PEARL. There’s an interesting story about a young man and a young woman trying to come to terms with their broken family, and, at the same time, they’re thrown together into a modest action/adventure yarn involving magic, mysticism, and a dragon. Only by working together can these two young minds bring everyone together and answer the prayers of a dragon only they can see. True, there’s some chop-socky and minor knifeplay in the final act, but nothing is overblown or gratuitous. In fact, much of PEARL reminds me of the terrific crowd-pleasing films of the 1980’s, albeit with a smaller script and less intense effects. This is the kind of film parents should have no problem watching with their children.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Ketchup Entertainment provided me with an advance DVD copy of THE DRAGON PEARL by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.