DragonPearlcoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  Yes, and no
2011, 95 min., Color
Rated PG for adventure action and peril
Ketchup Entertainment
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  None
Included: DVD, Vudu Digital Copy

The difference between a movie everyone in the family can watch and a “family movie” is that the latter deliberately tries to steer clear of anything offensive or problematic for small children. Often, that results in a film that young children can enjoy with parents, but older children will find too facile or boring. The whole family could watch this, but not all would want to.

The Dragon Pearl is the perfect adventure for families with children who are too young to experience the intensity of dragons and such in Eragon or the Harry Potter films. There are plenty of thrills and mild peril here, but no growth-stunting scares. Shot entirely in China, The Dragon Pearl is a treaty (bound by international law) co-production between producers from China and Australia, with the visual effects handled by two Australian-based companies.

Yes, we’ve seen a “chosen one” plot before, and the idea of a dragon that’s missing the pearl that serves as its power source is similar to so many mythic talisman stories that it’s about as original as two kids meeting on summer vacation and finding adventure together. But The Dragon Pearl has solid enough execution to make it enjoyable anyway. 

Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) and Wang Ji are on an archaeological dig in China, when inexplicably both have sent for their children to join them—his son Josh (Louis Corbett) and her daughter Ling (Li Lin Jin). Ling hears flute music that no one else can hear, and the two children take off on their own, led to a temple whose quirky caretaker (Jordan Chan) provides the film’s comic relief—something essential, later, to keeping the action scenes light. We’re told in a beginning narration that a benevolent ancient emperor was loaned a dragon’s pearl to ward off invaders, but that after his death the pearl was lost and the dragon still waits for its power source to be returned.

DragonPearlscreenThe children are just good enough actors to be believable, and the film explores themes that will connect with younger children—like the freedom to do things apart from parental guidance, or issues of parents trusting or believing what the children tell them.  The visual effects, too, are just good enough to be convincing, and the scenes of peril are just perilous enough to make everyone tense up. Director Mario Andreacchio (Napoleon, The Real Macaw) specializes in family films and hits all the right notes while resisting the temptation to be overly simplistic. Case in point? The obligatory character who might be good, or might be evil. Andreacchio coaxes a subdued performance out of Robert Mammone when he could have opted for a more over-the-top portrayal. Little things like this make a difference, and though the plot does have a direct point-A to point-B trajectory, such things keep The Dragon Pearl from being too hokey.

Our fifteen year old couldn’t keep himself from making snide comments throughout the film, and our eleven year old liked it, but not enough to watch it over and over again. That’s the kind of law of diminishing returns you get from a family film. The younger the child, the more it appeals.

For now, The Dragon Pearl is a Walmart exclusive that’s also available on Blu-ray.