An admirable attempt to blend Western blockbuster tropes with Chinese motifs, “The Dragon Pearl” lacks fire but is respectful enough not to camp it up despite its broad tone. Billed as the first official Australian-Chinese co-production, this entertaining if lightweight youth-targeted fantasy opened on 3,500 screens in China on March 11, filling a lull at Chinese cinemas with the novelty appeal of a combined English-Mandarin treat. Clearly geared more toward Western than Eastern tastes, pic nevertheless will mine auds in Chinese-language territories first, as it won’t be released in Oz until February 2012.
After a prologue about an ancient Chinese emperor who defeated invading barbarians by borrowing a magic pearl from a dragon, the action proper begins with grumpy Aussie teen Josh (Louis Corbett) and pixie-like, bilingual Chinese girl Ling (newcomer Li Linjin) jetting into Shanghai from their respective hometowns. Ling’s mother (Wang Ji) and Josh’s dad (Sam Neill), both single archaeologists, are excavating a newly discovered tomb that their intense American colleague, Philip Dukas (Robert Mammone), is keen to open.
While their parents are working, Ling, followed by Josh, is drawn to a clifftop temple maintained by comic-relief monk Wu-dong (Jordan Chan, charming). Entering a cavern below Wu-dong’s temple, the teenagers encounter the dragon that loaned the emperor his pearl centuries ago; both pearl and emperor are buried in the soon-to-be opened tomb. Flying with the dragon over the idyllic countryside, the two teens learn by osmosis that Ling is “the chosen one,” destined to reunite the dragon with his still missing, powerful pearl.
In supplying each kid with a workaholic, inattentive parent, the pic feels as though it has a surfeit of characters when a simpler variation would have sufficed. The filmmakers likely assumed the cross-cultural dynamic would maximize their audience, with Australian and Chinese viewers likely to identify with the protagonist from their particular culture; it’s unfortunate, then, that Josh, repping a stereotypical Western adolescent, comes across as self-indulgent and irritating.
The plot doesn’t always make sense, but helmer Mario Andreacchio (“Paradise Found,” “Captain Johnno”) never lets things stall or drag. On the down side, action sequences fail to take full advantage of the martial artistry of regular Hong Kong action director Jacky Yeung.
Perfs are good enough, with Li managing to carry much of the film on her tiny shoulders. Neill seems to be drawing without much effort on past similar roles from “Jurassic Park” onward; by contrast, Mammone does a solid job as the untrustworthy business partner .
Widescreen HD lensing by Geoffrey Simpson has the right Hollywood gloss, and the $18 million budget looks to have taken full advantage of the Chinese yuan exchange rate. Live-action sequences were shot mostly at China’s Hengdian Studios south of Shanghai, but outdoor locations look generic.
CGI work, executed by Oz f/x houses Rising Sun and Convergen, is most evident in the pic’s showpiece dragon; faithful to traditional Chinese designs, the beast has an appealing organic appearance in mid-air. Score by Frank Strangio follows the Hollywood adventure-music template, but with restraint.
Though not indicated on the print caught at the Adelaide fest, pic’s Mandarin title is “Xun long duo bao,” which literally means “Search for Dragon, Grab the Treasure.”