The press materials for Dragonball: Evolution claim that the filmmakers were trying to put a fresh spin on Akira Toriyama’s insane popular franchise. Amazingly enough, what they’ve done is the opposite: excising everything that was original or interesting about Dragonball and replacing them with every last Hollywood cliché you can think of. Combined that with bad filmmaking, and what you get is a pretty bad movie.
Thousands of years ago, a group of ancient masters stopped the evil warlord Piccolo (James Marsters) from taking over the world by imprisoning him in a magic vessel. In present day, the evil warlord has escaped, on has gone on a quest to gather seven magic balls that when brought together will grant the bearer one perfect wish. The only thing standing in his way is Goku (Justin Chatwin), an awkward high school student secretly trained in the martial arts by his grandfather. On his eighteenth birthday, he discovers a much greater destiny in front of him when Piccolo kills his grandfather. Together with a motley crew of friends, he sets out to find the Dragon Balls and save the world from destruction.
It’s always a little strange when Hollywood picks up a property that’s already tremendously popular. Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball series is a cultural phenomenon, one that doesn’t need any introduction to anyone with just a passing familiarity with Japanese media. The posters of the movie will say as much, touting the great number of fans the source material already has. And so it strikes me as strange that they would try to retrofit generic Hollywood tropes into Dragonball in the name of “accessibility.” The movie transplants the hero into high school, playing him up as the unpopular kid who gets bullied around and has a crush on the most popular girl in school. They took a rich world with its own rich mythology and they turned it into every other movie about teenagers. It’s a baffling, wrongheaded approach that makes the entire first act painful to watch. But even when the movie leaves the high school trappings behind, it doesn’t get much better. The movie just keeps stuffing the source material into Hollywood clichés, robbing the film of any possibility of freshness. Everything is too broad and too telegraphed, making that’s said or done in the movie unbearable for anyone above the age of five. The fights are pretty lackluster as well. What the film never manages to capture is Dragonball’s sense of scale. The camera gets too close to the action, and shots are cut too short to ever build into anything that could possibly recall the world-ending fights of the source material.
Justin Chatwin is reminiscent of a young David Arquette, which is to say, he belongs more in supporting roles, where his awkward delivery and facial expressions don’t get in the way of the action. As Goku, he isn’t very compelling, and his fighting leaves much to be desired. James Marsters is terribly misused in the film, left to become a Shaider villain. Emmy Rossum has gotten a lot of praise over the last few years, but this movie reveals that she still has a lot to learn. Jamie Chung can fight, but her acting needs work. Chow Yun-Fat is always fun to watch, though this will not go down as one of his best performances.
It’s painfully clear that Dragonball: Evolution never intended to do justice to the source material. Like scads of other Hollywood productions, the movie was intended to be a quick and easy cash-in on the popularity of an existing franchise. And so, what we get as an audience is generic Hollywood claptrap dressed up as Dragonball, featuring all the same boring tropes that we’ve all come to know and hate. Fans will inevitably be disappointed, while newcomers to the series will wonder what the hubbub was about.