After a couple of weeks of works that are not only shoddy but morally questionable, it’s almost a relief to review a film whose failures are totally aesthetic. And I’m here to tell you, the aesthetic failure of Dragonball:Evolution is indeed total.
Dragonball: Evolution, now out on DVD, is a live-action adaptation of the hugely popular manga and animé — that’s comic book and cartoon, for you filthy round-eye gaijin. If you haven’t heard of Dragonball, ask the nearest ten-year old. Actually, your best bet would be to invent a time machine, hop back about six years, and then ask the nearest ten-year old. At this point, the property is a wee bit past its peak, having finally wrapped up its forty thousand-issue run in Japan’s Shonen Jump Weekly and been collected into bound editions whose aggregate multimillion-page count has been responsible for the total deforestation of several South American nations. The market, to be blunt, may have reached its saturation point some time ago, and the whole product is starting to get a bit whiffy, like a tuna sandwich you’d think twice before eating. Dragonball: Evolution represents an attempt to breathe new life into the franchise, in the absence of new original material.
Like most quality entertainments for ten-year old boys, the Dragonball franchise is simple, ingenious, and ridiculously violent. The story, which originally began serialization shortly after the invention of the printing press (okay, 1985), concerns the fisticuffical trials of one Goku, a foundling of unknown origin, who is raised by a kindly old sensei and becomes the world’s greatest martial artist. The early volumes traffick in picaresque humor and highfalutin allusions to the Chinese novel Journey to the West, with Goku — who is improbably blessed with a furry tail — standing in for the traditional trickster-figure Monkey. But as the series moves on and Goku’s reputation grows, he faces off against a series of ever-more-powerful opponents with ever-more-ridiculous food-themed names, and for ever-higher stakes, and the series settles into a dependable formula of fight scenes, each of which takes approximately a thousand pages to unfold. The formula goes something like this:
- Opponent A prepares to strike a blow, summoning his chi / spirit power / extraterrestrial mojo: much glowing and posturing ensues (change of hair color optional): 4 pages.
- Cutaway to bystanders fearfully anticipating the unleashing of said force (use of the phrase “untold destruction” optional): 1 page.
- Opponent A launches himself at Opponent B. Speed lines, rasping-metal sound effects, lens flare, etc.: 6 pages.
- Contact: shockwaves, thunder-booming sound effects, slow motion, lots of yelling: 8 pages.
- Collateral damage: buildings fall down, earthquakes, tidal waves, etc.: 4 pages.
- Aftermath: cutaway to bystanders observing devastation (use of phrase “nothing could possibly have survived” optional): 2 pages.
- Smoke clears: dramatic reveal of Opponent B, essentially unscathed. (gasps optional): 4 pages.
- Reset: change partners and the dance continues.
Repeat until millionaire, with occasional brief interludes of plot.
It was with the adoption of this formula that Dragonball became your genuine worldbeater, and it has proved extraordinarily durable, spawning three TV series and 17 (!) animated feature films. The live-action movie is basically a reboot, and there its troubles begin. Bringing such a long-running and beloved series back to zero in a new medium — introducing the relevant concepts to newcomers while still providing something new and novel to longtime fans, all while telling a complete, done-in-one story that nonetheless leaves the door open for a sequel — is an enterprise fraught with danger, even under the best of circumstances, and the roadside of cinema history is littered with the bones of those who’ve tried, from George Pal’s take on Doc Savage to Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The filmmakers here try to incorporate elements from both early and late in the series, awkwardly mashing the fairy-tale quest elements of the former into the apocalyptic sci-fi milieu of the latter, and adding extraneous new elements to appeal to Da Yoof. In this version, we first meet Goku (Justin Chatwin, shorn of a tail and with his emo-dude hair a pathetic shadow of manga-Goku’s exploded quiff) not as a child, but as an awkward high-schooler. He’s been raised by his Mr. Miyagi-lite “grandpa” — no mention is made that Goku is a foundling, even though no parents are in evidence — who teaches him martial arts but forbids him to fight.
Goku catches a rash of crap from the snotty jocks at his school, where swordplay seems to be on the syllabus — Ninja High School, 90210 — mocked not only as a coward, but also because Grandpa is a vocal proponent of ancient-astronaut theories and “prophecies.” Everyone thinks the old man is crazy, but — dun dun dahhhhhhhhhn! — turns out that your consensus reality is crazy, man, and the old man knows the score! The Earth is, for reals, endangered by the imminent return of a kelly-green, point-eared demon called Piccolo (James Marsters, not so much slumming as rolling all his possessions into a hobo bindle and taking up residence in the Dumpster behind a Bennigan’s), who, we are told, ruled the world with an iron fist “two thousand years ago.” You’d think Tacitus might have mentioned that, but go figure.
Piccolo, it is prophesied, will return when the seven mystical orbs known as dragonballs are all gathered together. The film changes its mind about this about halfway through, and we see that Piccolo has already returned, through means never explained, and the true power of the proximate dragonballs is to summon a magical dragon who will grant any wish. If the movie had been a half-hour longer, the dragonballs would doubtless have held some other secret entirely — the world’s greatest chocolate-chip cookie recipe, perhaps. Who knows? With this movie, all bets are off; we are in a strange land where logic and consistency are foreign currencies.
Anyway. Goku’s grandpa is custodian of one of the dragonballs, and he gets murdered by Piccolo’s minions — but not before reminding Goku to “Remember who you are” and “Be true to yourself.” (Once, just once, I’d love to see a movie with the message, “Abandon your bullshit sense of self. Change! Grow! Become someone else — someone better!”) Goku sets off to find the other dragonballs, joined by Bulma (Emmy Rossum), who’s kitted out with a big gun, a wandering accent, a motorcycle that folds up into a make-up mirror, and no discernible personality. For help, they turn to a horny old professor, played by Chow Yun-Fat. Waste no time lamenting the faltering career of James Marsters, friends; here’s the Cary Grant of Asia — the coolest actor in the world, once — reduced to bumbling around as third-rate comic relief in this piss-ant chopsockey flick. FUCK YOU, VAGARIES OF FATE.
This unappealing trio flails around looking for the plot, and finds it in a big showdown with Piccolo, in which Goku prevails by REMEMBERING WHO HE IS and BEING TRUE TO HIMSELF, as Mufasa smiles down from the sky. No, actually, the Chow Yun-Fat character is killed, and it looks for a second like he won’t have to do the sequel, but then Bulma and Goku get their hands on the dragonballs and wish the poor bastard back to life! PWNED!
But I didn’t care, and neither will you, no matter who you are. It’s impossible to say who the filmmakers thought they were making this movie for; newbies will be mystified, and initiates are likely to be both annoyed and bored. The new material doesn’t really deepen the movie’s themes, or even make it more accessible — it simply adds a sheen of mockable cliché to a mishmosh of ill-matched elements. It’s neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring
The acting, to be charitable, fails to elevate the material. Chatwin’s performance is so low-key as to be nonexistent. He projects all the dramatic presence of a Dane Cook, the gravitas of a Keanu Reeves, the raw charisma of a Rob Schneider. Most of the time, he just looks vaguely confused. (He’s not alone.) He’s only the beginning of this film’s missteps, though. The script is trite and dull, obvious and incomprehensible all at once. The sets and effects look hideously cheap and dated, even though it’s a 2009 release. Even the action scenes are no fun; aside from one bit early in the film, when Goku wins a fight without throwing a punch, letting his high-school rivals beat each other senseless, there’s no pop to the choreography, no sense of grandeur.
That timidity is perhaps the most disappointing thing about Dragonball: Evolution. The action in the comics and cartoons is never less than over-the-top; Akira Toriyama, like Jack Kirby before him, created new vocabularies for violence in his work; he’s perhaps the most important manga-ka of the last quarter-century, and his influence on contemporary action comics — not just in Japan, but around the world — is incalculable. The momentum is relentless, and the combat is never less than over-the-top. But even with its shiny special effects, the film can’t match the vigor of Toriyama’s brushstrokes. There’s more life and imagination in the two pages above than in the whole of the film’s running time. Characters fly across the screen, but the cinematic ideas stay stubbornly earthbound. It’s a moving picture that doesn’t move, that never even comes close to the manic, gleeful energy that Toriyama brings to his pages. For a movie that’s all about balls, Dragonball: Evolution seriously needs to grow a pair.