SIFF Film Review – The Dragon Pearl
When I was a kid, it always aggravated me when something tried to placate me for being a kid. Movies, books, television shows. It didn’t matter. Those things made me hate things targeted for kids, for the most part. It always made me seek out adult things far before I ever probably should’ve. The Dragon Pearl, screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, is that kind of film, the kind that made me hate kids’ films. Granted, I’m not a child now, but I feel I have some idea what the younger version of myself would’ve thought and said while watching this story of two kids and the search for a dragon’s pearl.
The story opens on archeologist Chris Chase (Sam Neill) attempting to stop a thief from taking an artifact that was found on his current dig in China. The scene is all cutesy-kitsch as veteran actor Neill bumbles his way through a badly choreographed face-off with the thief, who is clearly more skilled at fighting than Chase is. This of course happens the night before Chase’s son Josh (Louis Corbett) shows up for a visit. So when this kid comes walking into the film, it’s conveniently at the same time his dad is being interviewed by the cops. Josh meets his dad’s co-worker’s daughter, Ling (Li Lin Jin). She’s roughly the same age as Josh, so of course they’re going to be pals.
Pretty soon Josh and Ling are having an adventure as they follow a local temple keeper, Wu Dong (veteran martial artist Jordan Chan), who comes off like a bumbling idiot savant, as he tries to escape with an artifact from the dig site. Turns out Wu Dong is protecting a temple that is housing a Chinese dragon in its depths. The kids find the dragon and discover that it’s basically sad, because it doesn’t have its Dragon Pearl anymore. Being separated from the pearl means that the dragon is bound to the earth. It’s now up to the kids to help find the pearl, which is buried somewhere in their parents’ dig site. But no task in the film world of archeology is complete without a bad archeologist who wants the artifact for their own superficial greedy designs.
For some reason, which I don’t remember ever being explained, Ling is special. Not Montessori special, but actually has some blessing or power, or something, that pretty much means she can find the hidden passages to get to the dragon and know what’s up with it, like what’s the deal with the missing pearl and all that. If this sounds exciting in any way, that’s because I’m making it sound exciting. Unfortunately, nothing much actually happens in the film except for the kids running around and supposedly discovering stuff. When they finally get the pearl and the bad guy finally shows up, which is pretty late in the third act, it’s up to martial arts veteran Jordan Chan to provide any bit of excitement. Regrettably, even that’s not really exciting. Sure, the guy has moves, but they’re wasted here. The choreography feels lackluster and toned down for kids, as if kids can’t handle some superior ass-kicking. When I was a kid I loved Bruce Lee films, and they weren’t lackluster at all.
To tie it around, that’s what brings the film down the most: its overblown sense of talking down to its audience. It’s one thing to attempt childish themes and even censor the presentation of violence for a children’s film, but it’s another to treat the audience like they can’t handle real excitement. The film bills itself as a Spielbergian type of movie, yet Steven Spielberg‘s films never shy away from the excitement that they can show. In fact, his films usually rely on that; it’s become a part of what Spielberg is known for. Here the same could not be said. The film plays it safe. Too safe. Safer than Nickelodeon, which I guess really didn’t play it that safe either—see Ren & Stimpy.
Disappointingly, there’s not much that can be done to get around the fact this movie really isn’t as good as the name The Dragon Pearl implies it should be. It’s nice to see Sam Neill act, but this felt like he was just phoning it in for a paycheck. And I certainly can’t blame him for that. It’s also unfortunate that another kid’s film has to suck. Speaking of Spielberg, he used to be the king of kids films that did not suck. Seriously, just rip him off. Yeah, you heard me. The art of exploitation, which is like ninety percent of the film industry, is all about just ripping off the guy who did it best. There’s no shame in having a successful film come out of imitating someone who did it right before you. Well, not when it’s compared to making something that doesn’t even tap the potential of what it could be, if it was original.
The Dragon Pearl screens June 9th at 1:00 PM at the Kirkland Performance Center.
Final Grade: D