Dragonball: Evolution

Movie Information

The Story: A young man and his friends must find seven dragonballs before a monster bent on destroying the world does. The Lowdown: Tepid and frequently incomprehensible nonsense that manages to be inoffensive and only mildly tedious.
Genre: Live-Action Anime/Manga Foolishness
Director: James Wong (Final Destination 3)
Starring: Justin Chatwin, Yun-Fat Chow, Emmy Rossum, Jamie Chung, James Marsters, Randall Duk Kim
Rated: PG

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “Dragonball: Evolution

  1. As one of the few resident manga nerds, allow me to say that this film bears almost no relation to the Akira Toriyama comedy series upon which it is VERY loosely based. The early Dragon Ball comics were a goofy retelling of the Chinese folk tale “Journey To The West,” and it’s actually quite charming and funny in a Japanese Carl Barks sort of way. For one thing, Goku is a little kid who lives in the woods, and he’s never seen any other humans other than his grandfather, and throughout the series he’s little more than an innocent do-gooder.

    But Toriyama ended up being a slave to his own success, and eventually the later Dragon Balls — “Dragon Ball Z” over here — became mostly about super-powered fighting rather than humor. (Toriyama’s other popular series, Dr. Slump, became his comedy outlet.)

    This film sounds like a trainwreck, and I have absolutely no interest in seeing it, but it’s a shame that people are going to think this is what Dragon Ball was all about, when it’s really more along the lines of “Uncle Scrooge” for the first two hundred issues or so.

    I’m still waiting for Hollywood to make a live-action, big-budget version of “Duck Tales.”

  2. jasondelaney

    I’m going to argue with you that the original Dragon Ball was innocent. Oh yes Goku was, but the arguably underage Bulma was put in increasingly sexual scenarios throughout the early stories. There seems to be some strange hypocrisy with modern Japanese culture that it’s illegal to have sex with children but it’s apparently just fine to desire it.

    All that aside though, the reason Goku worked for me was his extremely simple nature. He was always just a super strong and simple minded (read dumb as a box of rocks) all around good guy. He fought evil because it was evil, and he always liked the exercise. The fact that this film can’t even get that very, very simple character right is enough to hate it in my book. This whiny brat bastardization of good old mister virtue himself is of course just the tip of the “has nothing what so ever to do with the source material” iceberg, but it’s the most fraudulent in my opinion.

  3. Vince Lugo

    This is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn’t hate it. The anime is pretty ludicrous (that’s why I love it) and the movie is no less ludicrous so they got that part right if nothing else. I was a little disappointed that James Marsters wasn’t in it more, but it wasn’t enough to kill it for me. I’d probably watch it again at some point, but not until I can find it in the $5 bin at walmart. And believe me folks, this is not the worst anime-based film there is. Check out The Guyver sometime, or better yet, don’t. Even Mark Hammill couldn’t save that one.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Though I did find the movie OK in a so-bad-it’s-funny way, the only way I can imagine seeing it again is if they send me a “For Your Consideration” screener at awards season. I find the likelihood of that happening somewhat slim — even though they have sent me some pretty unlikely titles.

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