'Legend of the Naga Pearls' ('Jiao zhu zhuan'): Film Review

Legend of the Naga Pearls Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Well Go USA
Diverting and attractive, but not novel enough to attract many Stateside viewers.

Yang Lei's fantasy-adventure follows three heroes trying to keep flying monsters from stealing a powerful magic relic.

Three new friends try to rescue humanity from an ancient foe in Yang Lei's Legend of the Naga Pearls, an adventure that borrows freely from the Lucas/Spielberg/Jackson playbooks without straying far from the vibe of contemporary Chinese action-fantasy. It looks better than many of its peers, with only one or two lapses of taste in production design, FX and costumes. (The cutesy CG sidekick of our main hero is the biggest sore thumb.) Diverting but hardly novel enough to win over Stateside viewers outside the circle of hardcore Asian film buffs, it will likely segue quickly from theaters to a quiet afterlife on video.

Darren Wang plays Ni Kongkong, a self-described "prince of thieves" who is attempting to rob a prince when some monsters beat him to it. They're members of the Winged Tribe, flying humanoids whose race was vanquished in a war centuries ago. These descendants serve Vlad, seeking an ancient "Naga pearl": Seemingly unrelated to any of the real-life uses of the name Naga, this is a mysterious glowing orb Vlad needs to unlock something called the Eye in the Sky and bring about doomsday for humanity.

Not all remnants of the Winged Tribe are villains. Raven, a wingless descendant, is a constable who joins up with Ni when he seems to have a knack for protecting the pearl from Vlad. (Her brother, staying loyal to his people, is with the baddies.) And after Vlad slays the prince, the King's other son Herley goes undercover, joining Ni and Raven without explaining who he is or why he wants to save the pearl.

This trio's quest has something of a Luke/Han/Leia flavor to it, but the cast isn't charismatic enough to overcome the generic dialogue and plotting. The screenplay's most intriguing elements have to do with Ni — the nifty gadgets he uses to pull off his illicit feats; the scar on his hand that glows blue whenever he's close to the pearl. Oh — and Ni's animal sidekick, a pangolin called Oka, happily rolls himself up into an armored ball whenever Ni needs a projectile weapon.

Our heroes make their way to the Night Marsh Cavern, an underworld hangout where one expects to find Captain Jack Sparrow; instead we get a flat bit of sexual humor that risks making the film inappropriate for the kids who are Legend's most natural demographic. The performances get pretty broad for a while, before the picture refocuses on apocalypse-courting action that gives Ni the chance to save humanity from, among other things, a swarm of flying tapirs.

Production companies: Media Asia Films, Shanghai Film Group
Distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Darren Wang, Simon Yam, Xing Yu, Tianai Zhang , Guansen Sheng
Director: Yang Lei
Screenwriters: Tan Cheung, Xu Zhaoqing
Producers: Gordon Chan, Fan Feifei
Director of photography: Arthur Wong
Production designer: Kenneth Mak
Costume designer: Tingting Liang
Editor: Feng Qihuan
Composer: Ikuro Fujiwara

In Mandarin
108 minutes