Dragonball Evolution (2009)
Written by Ben Ramsey
Directed by James Wong
There are some signs a movie is going to be bad. When it comes to properties being adapted to the screen, one of the biggest red flags is when the picture opens with long-winded narration explaining something that happened two thousand years prior. Dragonball Evolution spends its opening moments moving us through a digital mural of images of our villains and explaining what happened back then. The narration only serves to create more confusion and talks about characters in a way that assumes the whole audience is familiar.
Then we jump into…a cheesy 90s style high school movie?! Goku is a white high school student living in a country of ambiguous location. He uses his martial arts prowess to tackle his bullies, and this display of violence woos his crush Chi-Chi, of course. I am not an expert in Dragonball. I watched some of the series when I was in college, and it aired on Toonami, mainly because friends were watching the show. What I remember is weeks of drawn-out conflict, characters standing across from each other on a barren plain growling and growing angrier by the episode. So, I am not a fan, but I definitely know it was better than this pile of hot garbage.
While I was watching Dragonball Evolution, I couldn’t help but think about The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, which came out the year prior. Speed Racer is one of my favorite big-budget films of the 2000s because it stayed so true to the heart and essence of the source material. It took creative liberties, but that’s to be expected; however, the movie feels like a real labor of love. Contrast that with Dragonball, which feels like a cash grab, maybe a few years too late, on a franchise that has a very devoted fanbase. The choices made in the script feel lazily lifted from any number of 1990s action comedies. Dragonball Evolution makes movies like 3 Ninjas and Surf Ninjas look like arthouse flicks.
Even more confounding that the script is the confusing editing. Characters are in one location and then suddenly seem to have lept to a whole other spot on the globe. I never had a real sense of place, which is maybe a facet of the anime? It doesn’t work in a live-action movie, though. That doesn’t mean everything has to be grounded or grim n’ gritty. Speed Racer had a hell of a lot of fun with wild and absurd locations, but I always knew where characters were in relation to the scene. Dragonball has definitely been edited down with its final runtime being 85 minutes. I can’t imagine that was the original idea when most pictures like this are regularly two and a half hours.
But with all awful movies, there is some point of light. That belongs to Chow Yun Fat as Master Roshi. He isn’t stumbling through his dialogue, as terrible as it is. When he’s allowed to be silly, he actually makes small moments enjoyable. The character of Roshi was intended as comic relief in the series, and Chow plays into those traits. On the flipside of characters, you have Justin Chatwin, a decent actor performing with zero charisma as Goku. It would be hard for me to say that Goku is annoying in this movie because there really is no sense of who he is. Goku does things, but they rarely inform the audience about his goals. He chases after the Dragonballs because the plot says he does. His grandfather dies, and it motivates his journey to begin, but after the fact, he never really seems broken up about the loss.
I would say out of the films I’ve watched so far in this series Dragonball Evolution is the one I dislike the most and couldn’t find much redeeming in it. I’ve never been a substantial fantasy-action fan, but I imagine no one could find much to enjoy about this movie other than mocking it. How long will Dragonball remain the worst? We’ll find out when I watch The Love Guru next week.