On a quiet holiday to an archeological dig in
China, two young teenagers catch sight of some kind monster deep in a
cave whose entrance has been hidden through a temple for thousands of
years. They soon discover the creature is in fact an ancient
Chinese Dragon.

Rollicking Sino-Australian co-production raids Spielberg's temple

Though it never quite amounts to the classic kids' adventure it aspires to be, Mario Andreacchio’s The Dragon Pearl is a thoroughly pleasing and exceedingly well-crafted family film. Parents will recognise with fondness, the overt Spielbergian influences, recalling their own memories of key moments in the master’s oeuvre, which have clearly inspired key scenes in the Adelaide-based director’s latest; unburdened by the familiarity of homage will be five to 15 year olds, who should lap it up.

The director has a long history of kid-friendly projects – Napoleon, The Real Macaw, the UK-French co-production Young Blades, Elephant Tales – and his grasp of adolescent priorities comes across in the construction of the teen leads in The Dragon Pearl (scripted in collaboration with John Armstrong, Ron Saunders and Philip Dalkin). Josh (Louis Corbett) has come to China to be with his archaeologist father Chris (Sam Neill) and quickly befriends Ling (the charming, talented Li Linjin), daughter of Chris’ equally-focussed offsider, Dr. Li (Wang Ji).

Both kids pine for their parents’ attention but are largely left to their own devices, and bond after a chance encounter with a young monk, Wu-dong (a lively and funny Jordan Chan). Realising Ling may hold magical powers foretold in ancestral scrolls, Wu-dong leads the two tweenagers on a journey to recover the titular gemstone, hotly pursued by traitorous American Dukas (Robert Mammone, providing solid villainy).

Such elements have made Spielberg the most successful filmmaker of all time, so Andreacchio’s adherence to a similar formula ensures excitement levels are high; on the flip sideit also never lets his film find its own personality. Recognisable Spielberg tropes include lead characters with issues stemming from separated parents; fleeing bad guys on BMX bikes; emotional attachments to magic; and soaring scoring (not John Williams here, but the equally operatic Frank Strangio). The discovery of the tomb beneath the monastery floor is a twist taken directly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); at any given point, Andreacchio’s scene crafting and storytelling flourishes recall Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park or the Spielberg-produced, The Goonies.

Andreacchio is certainly not the first director to borrow from the best, nor does his film suffer unduly because of it (quite the opposite). Yet The Dragon Pearl suffers the same fate as JJ Abrams’ recent Spielberg love-letter, Super 8 – it is easy to make your movie look like a Spielberg film, but much harder to make it feel like one.

One of the first official Australian-Chinese co-productions, the film makes full use of its whopping $18million budget to capture images one assumes to be both real (majestic vista’s of hillside monasteries; the street life of downtown Shanghai) and imagined (vast underground passageways, constructed at China’s huge Hengdian Studios).

Appropriately, the most impressive element of the film is the Golden Dragon, whose mystical qualities are both crucial to the emotional payoff of the story and culturally significant to followers of Chinese lore (permission had to be given by Chinese authorities for a CGI creature to be created). The combined efforts of Rising Sun and Convergen effect houses have resulted in a beautifully-realised, emotionally-resonant piece of post-production magic.