Dragonball Evolution is an insult. It’s an insult to the brilliantly impressive 519 chapters of the manga* series written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama, a series that sold over 150 million copies and inspired other works, like Naruto and One Piece. Toriyama’s clean lines, smart designs, strong characterization, and well-developed sense of humor are in complete opposition to James Wong’s cinematic, Americanized bastardization. The movie not only does a huge disservice to Toriyama’s manga, but it can’t even approach the mediocre anime series it spawned in terms of quality or devotion to the spirit of the manga. It’s unclear who Dragonball Evolution even appeals to — Dragonball fans will find the movie too simplistic, too undercooked, too lame, and too dissimilar in approach and tone to the original manga. Meanwhile, audiences unfamiliar with the source material will only be confused by the nonsensical plot, the American actors with Asian names, the underwhelming effects, the lack of demographic-friendly fight scenes, the unimpressive acting, and the cheap production values. There is far too much potential in the source material, and it’s a shame to see it go to waste here.
It’s not entirely unexpected: The massive success of Michael Bay’s Transformers launched a new wave of films based on 80’s toys, games, and television series, as studios were quick to cash in on a new generation unfamiliar with the source material and parents eager to introduce them to the pop-cultural artifacts of their childhoods. Unfortunately, the results so far have been mostly underwhelming for parents and children alike (the impending arrival of G.I. Joe seems unlikely to turn the tide). With Dragonball, it hardly seems like an effort was even made to make a film that would satisfy either demographic. It’s not aimed at 11-year-old boys as much as it looks like it was written and directed by 11-year-old boys fighting against their naptimes. And while James Wong and the principal cast members (namely, Justin Chatwin, Emmy Rossum, and James Marsters) aren’t the type to look the other way when a paycheck is shoved under their noses, it’s dispiriting to see that Chow Yun-Fat — as producer — is not only shoving those paychecks, but also degrading himself by appearing in the movie.
The major focus in the movie is on Goku (an lackluster Justin Chatwin). On this 18th birthday (nevermind that Chatwin is 27), Goku’s grandfather and mentor, Grandpa Gohan (Randal Duk Kim, doing his best deranged, drunken Mr. Miyagi), gives his grandson one of the seven dragonballs in existence. By itself, the dragonball does nothing , but combined with the other six, it gives the holder “one perfect wish.” Grandpa Gohan also teaches Goku — who has special, Matrix-lite martial arts abilities — the importance of nonviolence, which limits Goku’s abilities to protect himself from high-school bullies.
Soon after he’s given the dragonball, however, Goku uses his abilities — not to fight — but to allow the bullies to beat each other up in pursuit of him. This act of trickery is enough to woo Goku’s high-school love interest, Chi Chi (Jamie Chung), though before Goku can consummate his affection for Chi Chi, the vengeful Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) — who had been imprisoned for 1800 years — breaks free and kills Grandpa Gohan in pursuit of his dragonball.
Naturally, Goku is determined to avenge his grandfather’s death. However, he soon learns,he’s the only one who can stop Lord Picollo’s impending world destruction via eclipse, which he must do by collecting the seven magical orbs and using his wish to destroy Picollo. To assist him in his quest, Goku enrolls plucky Bulma (who had her dragonball stolen), who has a telepathic ability to locate dragonballs, and a new mentor, Master Roshi (Yun-Fat), who was also Grandpa Gohan’s martial arts-trainer. Eventually, it all leads to a huge letdown of a battle between Picollo and Goku, who launch fireballs and tired one-liners at each other like toddler’s aimlessly exchanging the contents of their diaper.
It’s practically impossible to underplay the weaknesses in Dragonball, which is running even keel with Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li for worst film of the year (though, Dragonball could’ve done with an injection of Chris Klein’s insane overacting). With most empty special-effects extravaganzas, you can at least expect an actual special-effect extravaganza. Not so much here: The effects are like something out of an old “Star Trek” episode: Wimpy and unimaginative, although in this instance, it’s not because the technology doesn’t yet exist to create better ones. Indeed, I’ve seen more impressive displays at children’s science museums. I might also note that the slo-mo sequences we’re a little too slo-mo — I may have fallen asleep during one of those interminable round-house kicks. Clearly, the budget was used instead on catering; everyone involved looks as though they were wondering around set in the midst of a crippling food coma. A wise decision, I’d guess, since the poor participants in this fraud probably won’ t be getting a lot of paychecks in the near future. They need all the nutrition they can get to sustain them until Larry Clarke comes calling.
A final note: Several months ago, Roger Ebert got in a spot of trouble with both his readers and critics of critics, who lambasted him for reviewing a film, Tru Love, that he’d only seen eight minutes of (to be fair, he noted in his review that he’d only seen the first eight minutes). Frankly, I’m impressed with Mr. Ebert. I had to watch a full 14 minutes of Dragonball Evolution before I could write this review. And that six minute difference is why Roger Ebert is the most popular critic on the planet, and I write for a site that sounds like the name of a female body part. If you have a cold.
Damn you, Ebert!
(* I have no fucking idea what a “manga” is.)