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"Dragonball Evolution": Survival of the Fittest?

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By the upcoming blood moon, the Earth will be destroyed at the hands of the evil Namek Piccolo and his servant Oozaru. Before this, Goku celebrates his 18th birthday and is given the Four-Star Dragonball and a mission: gather all seven of the Dragonballs, and a wish can be made to the eternal dragon Shen Long, to stop Piccolo’s plans for world domination. Together with Bulma, Master Roshi, and Yamcha, can Goku save the day, avenge his Grandpa Gohan, and win the heart of Chi Chi?

I have to admit, I was not looking forward to the movie. I somewhat grew up with Dragonball Z on Toonami, but had definitely grown past the series in latter years. Still, I’m always up for a trainwreck of a movie; I paid good money to see Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li, and bought The Room on DVD before Adult Swim finished airing it.

I didn’t get a train wreck, surprisingly.

The plot isn’t incredibly in-depth: Piccolo (played by James Marsters, almost reprising his role as Spike from Buffy, just with a dead-serious attitude) has a grudge against the Earth for sealing him away in the Mafuba Jar for 2,000 years. (“Ah, after ten-thousand years I’m free!” rang through my head as he explained his origins.) After inexplicably being released, he goes on a mission for the seven Dragonballs. Goku (Justin Chatwin, doing a moderate job for the most part) is out to avenge his grandfather, killed at the hands of Piccolo. He teams up with Bulma (Emmy Rossum, pretty decent as well), Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat, while not as old as he should be, is always entertaining), and Yamcha (played by Joong Park, but the whole time, I kept thinking about the how James Kyson Lee auditioned for the role), and runs into his crush, Chi Chi (Jamie Chung, eerily echoing Chun-Li in the recent Street Fighter movie). Along the way, he learns the master wind bending technique, the Kamehameha.

The movie echoes fantasy adventures of the past, which is appropriate, as Dragonball was the more adventure/comedy show, with Dragonball Z being greater in action, and Dragonball GT being the bastard fusion of the two. My best point of reference is Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie. There is action, which becomes a slight problem in adapting for the screen. Instead of having a punch per frame like the cartoon, the movie decides to slow down to show the amount of hits. Energy blasts are more blasts of air and fire, flying is limited to a few good jumps, and clothing, for the most part, doesn’t shred. At times, even the cinematography reminds me of Akira Toriyama’s recent works; scaling up Piccolo’s airship reminds me of Blue Dragon. Comedy is not the most prevalent, but some scenes gather genuine laughs: Goku’s attempt at hair gel is what got me the most. Sure, the settings are a little different. Master Roshi no longer lives on an island in the ocean, but he does live on an island in a city. Well, more like a secluded house in a development area of Paozu, separated by a gorge and connected only by a small walkway. Chi Chi doesn’t live in a castle, but she does live in a mansion.

The characters, by and by, are largely accurate to their original versions. Bulma may be a little trigger happy, but she’s still the blue-haired (well, slightly blue-haired) genius daughter of the President of Capsule Corp, who wants to collect the Dragonballs. Yamcha’s an uncouth thief and bandit with a real, stereotypical heart of gold. Master Roshi, or Muten Roshi as he bounces back and forth, is a perverted old man who has seen better days. Chi Chi is a the moderate fighter, and the love interest of Goku, who stays mostly true to the “pure hero” style. At some points, he may seem more prone to anger than should be, and he’s older than the equivalent Goku from the comics and cartoon, but he works. It’s almost as if Dragonball has become the literary classic, and this movie re-imagines it. If Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet is the original comic and cartoon, this movie is Romeo Must Die. Same plot, same characters, different setting.

The biggest problem is that, for as accurate to the general plot of Dragonball the story can be, the filmmakers couldn’t help but throw in a few elements of other worlds in it. I’ll glimpse past the modernization/futurization of some things; given that Dragonball existed in a crazy 8th century AD with flying cars and dinosaurs, having a high school with data-card lockers and virtual avatars available on the street corner aren’t really that out of place. No, the biggest gripe I have with Dragonball is that it’s equal parts Dragonball and Spider-Man. While that sounds epic on paper, they chose the worst parts of Spider-Man to shoehorn into the franchise. Grandpa Gohan is more Uncle Ben; while they perform the same surrogate father role, Grandpa Gohan was originally more about instilling good values in Goku, movie Gohan is more a catalyst for Goku to go on a quest to defend good and save the world. Chi Chi is less hard-nosed strict woman, and more Mary Jane; almost too perfect for the world, and too smart for Goku. Even Goku has a little Peter Parker in him: he daydreams at times, and isn’t as completely idiotic as Goku is in the series, but this can be factored by him actually having something of an education in the movie. Original Goku didn’t know there was a difference between men and women.

Dragonball Evolution is a satisfying take on the classic story. Naysayers will see the trailer and doubt it, and die-hards will complain about the smallest changes, but at the end of the day, Dragonball Evolution is the American cinema evolution of the franchise. People desperate for a new, authentic take on the story can go watch Dragonball Kai.

This review originally appeared at gaijinside. It is reprinted with permission.
All photos by Martin Gavica and are ©Fox. All rights reserved.