OK, I confess I can’t really sort out all the various permutations of the anime/manga series Dragon Ball, with its Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball GT. I’m not even clear why the feature-film version is spelled Dragonball rather than Dragon Ball. I did see a few episodes of Dragon Ball Z about eight years ago, and it very nearly put me off anime for life. The fact that this laughable, silly, borderline incoherent live-action version hasn’t turned me off movies suggests that it’s at least better than that. However, that is damning the film with faint praise, if you couldn’t tell. This movie is not good; it’s just less bad than the series. Beyond that, Dragonball’s value—such as it is—is that it’s too dumb to actively hate.
Working on the assumption—possibly false—that anyone cares, the story involves a nearly 18-year-old boy named Goku (played by the nearly 27-year-old Justin Chatwin), who appears to be blissfully unaware of the fact that he’s not Asian and that his Gramps Gohan (Randall Duk Kim, Year of the Fish) probably isn’t a blood relative. (While this does figure into the plot—eventually—the one look we get of baby Goku shows a mysteriously Asian infant.) The pair lives in some vague part of the world that makes no geographical or sociological sense—a place where the nerdy (yes, it’s a nerd-empowerment fantasy) Goku is perpetually picked on by martial-arts-expert, gangstah-rapper types. Not surprisingly, Goku has been forbidden to go all Bruce Lee on their asses and suffers much indignity.
All this is about to change, though, because the evil Lord Piccolo (James Marsters, TV’s Angel) has somehow (it’s never explained) escaped from the pit in which he was imprisoned for 2,000 years after his last bout of world destruction. And wouldn’t you know it: A couple thousand years hasn’t improved Piccolo’s mood one bit; he’s determined to destroy the world all over again. But to do this, you see, he needs to collect all seven dragonballs (“Gotta catch ‘em all”—no wait, that’s Pokéman related). To this end, he destroys small towns and causes a house to fall in on Gramps Gohan, despite the fact that the old boy already passed his ball on to Goku. Piccolo is just kind of rude that way.
The film then finds Goku teaming up with a character called Bulma (Emmy Rossum, The Phantom of the Opera); a shabby, mildly lecherous martial-arts master named Roshi (Yun-Fat Chow); a preposterous thief who looks like a J-rocker called Yamcha (Joon Park, Speed Racer); and the girl of his dreams, Chi Chi (TV actress Jamie Chung). Their mission, of course, is to collect the balls in question before Piccolo does. When the balls are assembled, it seems, you can summon a dragon that will grant any wish. Fans of aged B pictures may recognize that this plot is awfully like Bela Lugosi’s Mr. Wong chasing after the “12 coins of Confucius” in The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1935). Unfortunately, James Marsters—even with a coat of green greasepaint—is no Bela Lugosi.
Apart from some incidentals—including a side trip to a bargain-basement Mordor and Ernie Hudson (yes, Ernie Hudson, but with Uncle Remus eyebrows) as the end-all-be-all martial-arts master—this is pretty much all there is. For anyone over the age of 6 or 7, it’s probably not enough—unless you also find a piece of string good for hours of fun. Rated PG for intense sequences of action/violence.