Released: 10 April 2009
Director: James Wong
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $30 million
Stars: Justin Chatwin, Emmy Rossum, Chow Yun-fat, Jamie Chung, Joon Park, and James Marsters
After breaking free from two-thousand years of imprisonment, Lord Piccolo (Marsters) begins scouring the world for the seven legendary Dragonballs, which he intends to gather to summon a magical dragon and gain immortality. After his beloved grandfather is killed protecting the four-star Dragonball, young outcast and martial arts prodigy Son Goku (Chatwin) teams up with a head-strong inventor Doctor Bulma Briefs (Rossum) and eccentric martial arts master Muten Roshi (Yung-fat) to track down the Dragonballs and avert word-wide disaster!
I might be a day early for “Piccolo Day” (or “Goku Day” if you prefer) but I’m never one to pass up a good excuse to celebrate all things Dragon Ball, which debuted in the pages of Weekly Shōnen Jump back in 1984. The creation of writer and artist Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball originally borrowing many elements from Journey to the West (Cheng’en, 1592) before delving into a far more science-fiction-orientated approach with is successor series, Dragonball Z, which would come to define the entire franchise in popular, mainstream media. Dragonball Z was first licensed by Funimation in 1996; despite the omission of its often graphic and violent content, Dragonball Z was a massively popular anime and even led to several feature-length animated films, though these were generally produced without Toriyama’s direct involvement and often failed to align with established canon as a result. Development of a live-action Dragon Ball movie can be traced back to 1995, when noted Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan expressed an interest in taking on the iconic role of Son Goku; Toriyama himself would late state that Chan would have been his choice for the role if the actor was younger, but development of a live-action adaptation wouldn’t properly get underway until 2002, when 20th Century Fox acquired the rights and set to work developing a script and finding a director. In the end, it was youngster Justin Chatwin who won the lead role, and the production was forever condemned for “white-washing” as a result. James Marsters took on the role of the film’s antagonist, Lord Piccolo, and was particularly enthusiastic about the project given his love for the anime, though both he and co-star Cow Yun-fat were unimpressed to find they’d been duped into thinking the project had a higher budget and that director Stephen Chow would be in charge of the film. Dragonball Evolution’s $58.2 million worldwide gross meant it was a box office bomb, and the reviews were scathing across the board as critics bemoaned the lacklustre story and characterisations, its lack of fidelity to the source material, and it was slammed as being a surreal mess full of poor special effects and overacting; even Toriyama was disappointed by the adaptation, and plans for a number of sequels were subsequently cancelled.
I was a bit late to the Dragonball Z party as a kid since it took me a while to be able to watch it (satellite television isn’t cheap when you’re income is low), but I’ve been a long-time fan since I was a teenager and the idea of a live-action adaptation was quite exciting. However, right off the bat, I (and the wider audiences) were having to temper our expectations; many of us in the West grew up watching Dragonball Z and, arguably, that’s still the most popular iteration of Toriyama’s long-running franchise, but it wouldn’t make a huge amount of sense to do a big screen movie that skips of Goku’s time as a youth and establishing the fantasy world he lives in, so right away the idea was that we’d have to get through an “origin” story before we started to see Super Saiyans and alien, technological, and God-like beings challenging our heroes. I get the idea in principal but there is a counter argument to that thinking: start with Goku as a young twenty-something and do a truncated version of the Saiyan Saga since that’s what many people wanted to see and, if it’s successful, you can maybe do a prequel later down the line. Instead, though, Dragonball Evolution opted to focus more on reconfiguring the lesser-known Dragon Ball anime for its story, specifically elements of the Emperor Pilaf, Tournament, and Piccolo Sagas…which is pretty convenient for me since I’m much more familiar than the start and end of Goku’s childhood journey than the middle parts. Like all great movies, Dragonball Evolution opens with an opening narration that tells the legend of a maniacal tyrant known as Lord Piccolo, who terrorised the world alongside his monstrous minion, Ōzaru, before finally being sealed away using the mysterious “Mafuba” enchantment. Thankfully, Goku is only too aware of the Piccolo/Ōzaru legend thanks to the wise and benevolent teachings of his beloved grandfather, Gohan (Randall Duk Kim).
Unlike in the manga and anime, Goku has lived only a semi-sheltered life; he essentially lives out in the countryside, not far from the main city, and has been taught martial arts, legendary scripture, and the basics of ki by his elderly grandfather, a playful and mischievous old man who delights in sparring with his grandson in frankly ludicrous displays of green screen and “wire-fu”. Although Goku is a formidable opponent, Gohan emphasises that he relies far too much on his senses rather than the strength within him; Goku’s difficulty at mastering his ki to perform air-bending techniques is a recurring element in the film and part of his larger character arc of realising the true potential that dwells within him and turning it towards good. Sadly, however, Justin Chatwin isn’t really that great of a fit for Goku; he’s got the youthful charm, for sure, but lacks the physical stature and believability to really fill out the role. Not only that but he’s really not that great an actor; some of his line deliveries are embarrassingly cheesy and not in a good way. It’s strange as he does a decent job of conveying Goku’s frustrations and social awkwardness, but whenever he has to be “serious” he stumbles quite noticeably, making for an inconsistent and disappointing depiction of the goofy Saiyan fighter. Still, Goku is depicted as overtly superhuman, easily able to dodge and subdue even multiple opponents at once without even throwing a punch. However, he’s also as an outcast and, while grateful for his grandfather’s teachings, he longs to be accepted by his peers and to get the girl; in this case, the cute and attractive Chi-Chi (Chung). Although Chi-Chi has apparently been claimed by Goku’s long-time tormentor, Carey Fuller (Texas Battle), Goku is besotted by her but even more stunned to learn that she knows about ki. Clearing interested in him, she’s sympathetic to the abuse he suffers in school and invites him to her house party, which means he isn’t there when Piccolo comes calling for the Dragon Ball and kills Gohan. Chi-Chi continues to be full of surprises when Goku and his allies travel to the Stone Temple, only to find it a training ground for the fights of the World Martial Arts Tournament; there, Goku learns that Chi-Chi is actually an admirable fighter in her own right, with designs on taking part in the tournament, and the two grow close when she helps him to focus his ki. As the battle to recover the Dragon Balls escalates, Chi-Chi gets to show off some of her fighting prowess, but ultimately end sup the victim of Piccolo’s machinations when his shapeshifting ninja-like henchwoman, Mai (Eriko Tamura), assumes her form in order to get closer to Goku and steal his Dragon Balls.
Although Gohan told Goku that gathering all seven Dragon Balls will summon the mighty dragon Shenron and grant “one perfect wish”, it seems he didn’t fully believe this story, or the threat of the Nameks, until Piccolo kills his grandfather. Although devastated by this loss, Goku vows to protect his grandfather’s Four-Star Dragon Ball from falling into the wrong hands, which causes him to form an unlikely alliance with the headstrong Bulma, who attacks Goku after thinking he stole her Five-Star “Promethium Orb”. Although she has her Dragon Radar, Bulma is smart enough to agree that she needs backup and agrees to help Goku find Gohan’s old friend and master, Roshi, but holds Goku to his promise to help her locate her missing Dragon Ball. Bulma’s technology is essential to their group’s quest; not only can she locate Dragon Balls with her radar, but she has the vehicles to transport them vast distances and can even hold her own thanks to her pistol. While she is unimpressed with Roshi’s lewd attempts to get close to her, she attempts to charm Yamcha (Park) into helping them out when they crash into a whole, only to be spurned since the desert bandit set the trap specifically to try and rob them. A selfish, arrogant thief, Yamcha is initially dismissive of Roshi’s (literal) campfire tales about the coming danger but is convinced to help them out first by being impressed with Roshi’s incredible physical prowess and then by the promise of payment. I can’t explain why, but Yamcha is one of my favourite non-Saiyan characters from the anime and, while Joon park certainly doesn’t look anything like the character, he brings a certain appealing energy to the role that, while bordering on the ludicrous, makes him a far more charismatic character than Goku. Bulma and Yamcha remain the standout characters for me, and not just because I have an unapologetic crush on Emmy Rossum or a bias towards Yamcha; they have a decent amount on onscreen chemistry (certainly more then Chatwin and Chung, despite the latter’s best efforts), capture the spirit of the characters pretty well, and I even appreciate the little blue streak in Bulma’s hair as a nod to the source material.
Another relatively faithful highlight is Master Roshi; although he lacks the character’s trademark bald head, sunglasses, and beard, he at least wears the same loud Hawaiian shirts and exhibits a lewd, playful personality. An aloof and unusual master of the martial arts, Roshi is only too familiar with the threat posed by Piccolo and Ōzaru, which heralds the coming of the apocalypse. Distraught to learn of Gohan’s death and Piccolo’s return, Roshi insists on coming along and teaching Goku how to refine his ki: this involves forcing him to run through the desert carrying all of their supplies, performing one-handed headstands, and learning to master two things at once. While he’s definitely an oddball character, Roshi is dead serious about the threat posed by Piccolo and Ōzaru and can effortlessly hold his own in most fights; however, his primary purpose is delivering exposition regarding the Mafuba (which claims the lives of those who use it) and training Goku to harness his ki and learn the most powerful of all air-bending techniques, the Kamehameha Wave. It’s interesting that the depiction of ki is quite different here than in the source material; it’s more akin to what is seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005 to 2008) in that characters are manipulating elements using their inner energy rather than literally channelling that energy into destructive attacks, and I’m not entirely sure why the change was made beyond a cursory implication that Piccolo favours for fire-based energy attacks since his attacks are often depicted in red. While Roshi pushed Goku’s strength and skills to the limits through rigorous and unorthodox training methods in the source material, it’s only through the encouragement (and the incentive of a kiss) from Chi-Chi that Goku is able to pull off the Kamehameha for the first time here. Fully aware that Goku won’t be ready to face Piccolo in time, Roshi turns to Sifu Norris (Ernie Hudson) to prepare the Mafuba once more, fully prepared to sacrifice himself to save the world from destruction.
Another commendable aspect of Dragonball Evolution has to be James Marsters as Lord Piccolo; released from his confinement offscreen by Mai, Piccolo is a grim and ruthless individual who has no compunction about raising entire villages to smouldering ruins in his search for the Dragon Balls. Regal and menacing in his posture, Piccolo is a villain of few words and even few wasted movements; he sees all life as beneath him and wants nothing more than to enact a merciless revenge upon the world that imprisoned him for so long, and personally crushes Goku’s home using his immense power, killing Gohan in the process and thus making their antagonism very personal. Piccolo is a fearsome opponent; not only can he lay waste to entire areas and dry up bodies of water in a single blast, but his blood can also spawn monstrous minions to cause minor inconveniences to the protagonists. Indeed, Piccolo spends the majority of his time just posturing and floating around seemingly in no hurry to find the seven Dragon Balls despite literally being on a deadline. Although he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in the search, he continuously leaves Mai to screw around impersonating Chi-Chi to steal the heroes’ Dragon Balls rather than simply take them by force like he did the others and wastes his time delivering villainous monologues rather than just bringing forth the dragon when he has the chance. He literally jumps at the chance to lord himself over Goku, especially after he’s transformed into Ōzaru, and prioritises fighting with the boy rather than locating the scattered Dragon Balls. Ultimately, Piccolo lacks any of the menace or subtle nuance of either his father or his more well-known son/reincarnation; he’s ridiculously one-dimensional, being “bad” for the sake of it, and is defeated with depressing ease when all’s said and done. While Marsters may have hoped to return and do the character justice in future sequels, and Piccolo is shown to have survived, it’s difficult to envision this version of the character ever being more than a one-note kids’ villain in a regrettably poor adaptation.
Although Dragonball Evolution appears to take place in our world, or at least the near future, it’s actually surprisingly faithful to the source material in a lot of ways. Sure, there’s no anthropomorphic characters and a lot of the more fantastical elements are excised or subdued, but there’s a decent attempt to including such concepts as the Capsule Corporation’s wearable technology, Piccolo travels the world in a futuristic and elaborate airship, and Bulma not only carries her trusty Dragon Radar but also rides a bike not a million miles away from her manga counterpart. Characterisations are far more on point than some people give credit for, too; sure, this “teen” version of Goku has a bit more in common with his teenaged son, who also struggled a bit to fit in at high school, but Goku has the same voracious appetite and aptitude for martial arts in the source material and is just as wide-eyed and naïve in a lot of ways (although here that’s reconfigured as a shy awkwardness around Chi-Chi rather than a general naivety towards life outside of his sheltered upbringing. Bulma is pretty on point as well; she’s as stubborn and forthright as in the source material, but also far more independent and capable. She’s searching for the Dragon Balls to use them as an unlimited energy source for the world rather than to wish for a boyfriend, is nowhere near as objectified or insufferable, and actually proves to be a valuable asset to the quest.
There are a few other notable allusions to the source material as well: Goku can sense ki, which alerts him to his grandfather’s death; he also takes up Gohan’s bō staff (a far more grounded interpretation of the extendable Power Pole Goku wielded as a child in the source material), and eventually dons a keikogi that’s admirably faithful to his traditional attire. While Master Roshi doesn’t live on a small island in the middle of nowhere, his house is on an isolated “island” of sorts in Paozu City and he’s just as excitable and inappropriate as his admittedly more iconic counterpart. While Piccolo is freely identified as a Namek rather than a demonic entity as was originally implied in his first appearances, there’s a definite sense of otherworldliness to him that hints at threats from beyond the stars; however, one of the most interesting alterations to the established Dragon Ball lore is the depiction of the Great Ape, Ōzaru. Here, Goku is able to look at a full moon without fear (potentially because of his lack of a Saiyan tail), but the impending solar eclipse triggers his transformation into a much smaller version of the iconic monster, one far closer to the Wolfman than King Kong. While the film presents Ōzaru as being a destructive monster sent to destroy the world, it also positions the creature as another of Piccolo’s henchmen in a bit of a bizarre and confusing alteration; the film’s rushed and ugly finale attempts to present a version of the usual story surrounding the Great Ape (that the Saiyan loses control of their senses and must be subdued or calmed down to stop their rampage) by indicating that Goku’s memories of his grandfather and friends allows him to master Ōzaru’s power, and thus gain mastery of his ki, but it’s a bit of a messy execution and I honestly think the film (and the effects budget) would have been better off just omitting Ōzaru entirely.
These references are tenuous at best, however, and amount to little more than Easter Eggs; Dragonball Evolution thus ends up being an adaptation that tries far too hard todumb down or omit the more fantastical elements of its source material and simply drop in a few sly winks and nods for the knowing audience. This probably wouldn’t be so bad if the film made up for it with some thrilling and visually interesting fight sequences but, sadly, there’s a disappointing lack of actual martial arts in the film. The opening sparring match between Goku and Gohan, while fun, is hardly what you’d call ground-breaking fight choreography; Dragonball Evolution takes its cue very much from films like Bulletproof Monk (Hunter, 2003) for the depiction of its martial arts, emphasising unnatural camera angles, quick cuts, and a light-hearted bending of the laws of physics. There’s a very “floaty” feeling to all the moves that means characters bend and twist and flip in ways that go against everything you’d expect in the natural world and, while this is a sour point for fans of more traditional or visually interesting martial arts films, it does fit rather well with Dragon Ball’s whimsical and over the top nature. The franchise has never really been one for realism; characters routinely float, fly, teleport, and perform superhuman feats that have no basis in reality, and Dragonball Evolution is clearly made for a younger audience who aren’t expecting long, continuous, brutal sequences like those of Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (Pinkaew, 2003), so I don’t begrudge the film for utilising such a farfetched visual direction for its fight scenes. Still, having said that, the film really falls off a cliff around hallway through when the characters inexplicably tunnel through the dirt in the arid wastelands and find themselves at a raging volcano! While I applaud the use of practical effects to render Piccolo’s rock-like henchmen, they’re dispatched with ridiculous ease and the editing is almost as bad as the green screen.
Things only get uglier and when the film reaches what is supposed to be a dramatic conclusion and instead becomes a disappointingly underwhelming light show where the actors are clearly flailing around on a green screen and throwing poorly rendered blasts of light at each other. It gets even worse when Goku transforms into Ōzaru; thanks to fan backlash regarding the creature’s initial design, which seemed far more practical despite looking nothing like an ape, Ōzaru is rendered as a monstrously ugly CGI creature that stands out like a sore thumb even amidst the shoddy computer-generated landscape. To the film’s credit, it at least attempts to recreate the kinetic battles from the anime, some of the camera shots even evoke those from the source material and Piccolo and Goku certain throw their fair share of energy blasts at each other, but by this point it all just looks like a bad videogame. It’s amazing to me how, in a post-Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) world, Dragonball Evolution fails to even remotely capture the tangible thrill of two hated rivals exchanging blows in mid-air and crashing through rocks. Obviously, The Matrix Revolutions (ibid, 2003) had a much higher budget than this dreck of a film but it also came out six years previously and you’d think that even a throwaway kids’ movie like this would be able to learn something from its approach. While I appreciate the attempt to try and recreate Lord Piccolo’s death from the source material, the scene of Goku channelling the Kamehameha and Ōzaru’s energy into himself to launch his final attack at his foe is laughably awful and looks more like a bad fan film than a big-budget release. Even more incredible is that Goku wastes his one wish on resurrecting Roshi (why not wish for all lives lost at Piccolo’s hands to be restored, thus returning Gohan and all those senseless killed by Piccolo to life?) and that the film ends with sequel bait!
I was actually quite sympathetic towards Dragonball Evolution when I first saw it at the cinema. I enjoyed Bulletproof Monk for what it was and the similarities between the two films, and the references to the source material, were enough for me to consider it a decent enough kids’ movie that tries its best to capture some of the spirit of Dragon Ball. But, over time, those positives have dulled and this has become nothing less than a painful chore to sit through. It’s pretty amazing how awful this film is when you consider that Casshern (Kiriya, 2004) released about five years before this and did a far better job of crafting a live-action anime on a far smaller budget. It’s not as if Dragonball Evolution is elevated by the quality of its cast; Emmy Rossum and Joon Park aside, the film is full of inconsistent, lacklustre, and over the top performances that only serve to give it a mixed tone. If it had fully committed to being an action/comedy or a fantastical martial arts tale, maybe it would have landed better but it’s just all over the place and it’s difficult to really care about the stakes as a result. Dragon Ball often has its whimsical and comedic elements but, when the battle for the world starts, things usually always get pretty serious but, here, they just become an unimpressive and ugly CGI light show that makes everyone look like a complete fool as they scream against a green screen and are awkwardly jerked around in the air in a poor attempt at recreating the intensity of the anime. I definitely feel like there’s potential for a live-action Dragon Ball, but this reeks of corporate mandates and just comes across as a cheap cash grab that tries to pay homage to the source material but ultimately fails to appeal to fans of the franchise by dumbing everything down to the point of insult.
What did you think to Dragonball Evolution? Were you a fan of Justin Chatwin’s portrayal of Goku? Which of the characters was your favourite? What did you think to the changes made to the source material? Were you also put off by the muddled tone and poor special effects? Would you like to see another live-action Dragon Ball some time? How are you celebrating Dragon Ball day today? Whatever your thoughts on Dragonball Evolution, or Dragon Ball in general, sign up to leave them below or feel free to leave a comment on my social media.