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howbadcanitbe1

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.

As I grow older, time seems to go faster. That’s an illusion, I suppose, stemming mainly from an ever-keener awareness of my own mortality—but it’s due, too, to increased ubiquity of mass media and the attendant global interconnectedness. If everything seems to be happening all at once, well, maybe it always was; what has changed, perhaps, is our ability to observed and process it on the fly, instead of absorbing the mediated version after the fact. Perhaps.

Or perhaps not. Because pop culture is a highly mediated phenomenon, with corporate interests acting as stakeholders and gatekeepers—and yet the accelerated boom-and-bust cycle is apparent in pop culture, too. Not so long ago, the Beatles had to play a couple of years at five sets a night in the sailor haunts of Liverpool and Hamburg to attract the notice of management; and although they eventually came to be marketed primarily as personalities, it was their musical skills that were their initial product, before their personal charm and humor could be monetized effectively.

These days, though, young stars arrive as pre-packaged omnimedia engines. It’s not enough to be one thing anymore; backed by deep-pocketed conglomerates like Disney and Viacom, these kids début in a flurry of hyphens—singer-actress-comedienne-dancer-fashion designer, with a CD, a tour, a basic-cable sitcom, and a Vanity Fair spread all bursting on the scene at once. All the revenue streams are cross-branded and cross-marketed, regardless of the stars’ skills or shortcomings in any of those market sectors. There are ways to compensate, after all. Not such a great comic actress? That’s what laugh tracks are for. Autotune can sweeten the vocals, and a sufficient cadre of backing dancers makes even pedestrian choreography look impressive. Thus can sufficient budgeting make a megastar of a mediocrity—for a certain audience, anyway. A very young audience, in the main, with indiscriminate tastes, plenty of discretionary income, and indulgent parents.

The cost of this career fast-tracking is an accelerated burn rate. While there are occasional youth stars who survive off the reservation—recent examples include former Disney kid Shia LaBeouf, by this point a genuine movie star, and Nickelodeon stalwart Josh Peck, who’s been cobbling together an impressive indie-film résumé on the side—most fall away somewhere along the line. Sometimes their fall is public and tragic (e.g., Lindsay Lohan), sometimes it’s a slow fade to obscurity: What do you hear from Hilary Duff lately? How about the kid from Cory in the House? Shia’s old co-star, Christy Carlson Romano, has had a quiet couple of years. So has Amanda Bynes. Frankie Muniz was making 5 mil a picture, not long ago. These days? The occasional direct-to-DVD project, which leaves him plenty of time to drive race cars.

Here’s the thing: Not everybody has the savvy or the luck to go out on a high point. For most of these people, in most of these careers, there had to be a moment when it became apparent that the good times could not last. Maybe the certainty doesn’t come all at once, but it comes nonetheless. And what do you do then? What do you do when you know that it’s all but over? When your numbers are down but you’re still under contract for another ten episodes, another album, another tour—how do you keep on? Do you suck it up and hack it out? Do you rage against the dying of the light? Or is it business as usual? I find myself asking this because I’ve just watched the DVD Hannah Montana Volume 5: Keepin’ It Real—collecting episodes of the Disney Channel sitcom—and it seems like a product of that fading twilight, that hour of the wolf.