So it's finally here. After all of the fan debates about how crap it's going to be we now get the chance to find out for ourselves. I will say that I was more than willing to give James Wong's live action interpretation of the classic Akira Toriyama manga a chance, but this didn't mean I went into the screening with high hopes. However, the film did exceed my expectations, and for anyone who has yet to see it please note: it's not actually that bad.
The film focuses on Goku (Justin Chatwin), a
high school misfit who is secretly learning martial arts from his grandfather
Son Gohan (Randall Duk-Kim). He has a crush on his classmate Chi Chi
(Jamie Chung) and he thinks his life is going to get better when he gets invited
to a party by her on his 18th birthday, but instead it gets a whole lot worse.
A terrible demon called Piccolo (James Marsters) has been resurrected and is
searching for seven ancient artefacts known as the Dragonballs. Legend has
it that the balls will grant a single wish to whoever gathers all seven, Piccolo
fears their power and has decided to gather them before they can be used against
him. As you would probably expect Son Gohan has a Dragonball and is
attacked by Piccolo and his servant Mai (Eriko Tamura) whilst Goku is at the
party. However, Gohan had already given the Dragonball to Goku, and it is
up to him to track down the martial arts master Muten Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat) and
train to defeat the demon lord. He won't be doing it alone though, along
the way he meets Bulma (Emmy Rossum) and Yamcha (Joon Park) who both have their
own reasons to track down the balls. Together they are all that stands in
the way of Piccolo's evil plans, but unless Goku can master his own spirit and
the legendary martial arts technique known as the Kamehameha, even they may not
be able to stop him...
I can imagine that hardcore Dragonball fans are by now screaming in dismay. Yes, Goku goes to school. Yes, Piccolo kills Goku's grandfather. Yes, Bulma's hair isn't green. But this film is an adaptation, not a carbon copy of the original. I have read all of the Dragon Ball manga, and seen the majority of the anime. I know my Jayce from my Popo, and whilst this film does not follow the story to the letter it does capture some of the manga's spirit. There are some great moments of daft humour that could have come right out of the original,
whether a 'secret' training ground being packed with aspiring martial artists or Goku causing a group of school bullies to beat themselves (and their car) up by evading all of their attacks. There are also plenty of references for fans too, including mentions of Namekians, Capsule Corporation and certain characters' intergalactic origins. The film is good fun with plenty of action and the fight scenes and special effects are generally well done, especially the energy attacks. The plot may differ from the manga but the story does loosely follow the original, and the acting is not too bad with Chow Yun Fat's belligerent turn as Master Roshi probably stealing the show.
It's not all good news though. Whilst the
film is enjoyable and entertaining it does leave some colossal plot
holes at points. For example it is never explained how Piccolo
escapes from his original imprisonment, or why Mai has shapeshifting
powers. No-one really seems to take any notice of a demon
flying around in an airship levelling cities either. The main
problem though is the film's length. At just 84 minutes long
it tries to squeeze in a hell of a lot of story into far too short a
time, and as such things move far too quickly. It just about
holds together but Roshi's training of Goku seems to consist of a
couple of minutes of him running with a big backpack and doing
handstands in a van. I mean come on, he doesn't even get a
training montage! Even Ralph Macchio got a training montage!
If it's good enough for the Karate Kid it should be good
enough for Goku! You are frequently left with the impression
that sections of the film have been cut out, the short running time
means you see far too little of Piccolo and characters like Bulma
and Yamcha generally seem to be little more than an afterthought.
It's a shame that the film is so short because it actually does detract from it more than you may think. There is a distinct lack of character development, some scenes seem rushed and it must be said that the early school scenes feel somewhat forced and out of context with what comes afterwards. However, despite the rushed plot and two-dimensional characters it is still great fun. Dragon Ball has never been about philosophical depth, at its heart it's just an action comedy that gradually became more action orientated. Dragonball Evolution
captures this quite well and despite its problems it is still an entertaining film. The action is fast paced, the characters recognisable enough from their manga counterparts and the comedic elements are retained as well. Unfortunately because of its short length it never manages to really reach its potential, it's fun and it's watchable, but it's not quite as good as it could have been.
At the end of the day Dragonball Evolution is frustrating. Not because of the content or the plot, but because it's a missed opportunity. I honestly believe the creators have done a good job of adapting the Dragon Ball manga for Hollywood, it's the feel of it that matters and I'm not going to nitpick about characters' hair colour or ages. However, I do think that the short running time leaves gaps in the story and stifles a film that could have been more impressive than it ended up being. The casting is pretty good, as are the special effects, but some of the characters feel flat and I wonder how easy it would be to follow if you aren't familiar with the source material. Dragonball Evolution is better than I expected and it is certainly a fun and entertaining film, but it's also not as good as the original manga. It doesn't, however, deserve the negative fan reaction it has received and it is well worth a watch if you like plenty of action and some enjoyable martial arts shenanigans.
Hang around for a couple of minutes into the end credits to see a short additional bit of footage which throws up yet more plot holes and leaves the door open for a sequel.