Dragonball: Evolution (2009) Movie Review

James Wong’s live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese manga/anime “Dragonball” might just be the first movie to actually live up to the hype. Unfortunately for Wong and company, that hype was overwhelmingly negative. In all my years of covering movie news, “Dragonball: Evolution” might just qualify as the most derided and divisive movie of all time, splitting fans of the original property firmly into two camps: those that hates everything about the movie since Day 1, and those that wants to give it a chance, hoping against hope that it would turn out, if not good then at least not as Godawful as they feared. The result, alas, is somewhere in-between. While James Wong’s “Dragonball: Evolution” is not the worst movie ever made, it’s nevertheless amazing how little you can accomplish with $45 million dollars.

The film stars Justin Chatwin (“The Invisible) as Goku, an orphan raised since he was a toddler by his grandfather (Randall Duk Kim). Now on the verge of his 18th birthday, Goku realizes that all the training by grandpa was for a reason – namely, a green-skinned alien name Lord Piccolo (James Marsters, Buffy and Angel) has somehow escaped the prison he was sentenced to thousands of years ago, and is looking for payback. In order to exact his revenge on the Earth, Piccolo must assemble seven mythical glowing red spheres called Dragonballs, and only with all seven in his possession can he summon a magical dragon that will grant him one ultimate wish. It’s up to Goku, female mercenary Bulma (Emmy Rossum), Goku’s new master Roshi (Chow Yun Fat), and roguish scavenger Yamcha (Joon Park) to save the day. And oh yeah, Goku also has the hots for classmate Chi Chi (Jamie Chung), and really, who can blame him?

So yeah, it’s not much of a plot, but then again, “Dragonball: Evolution” is not much of a movie. The first mistake was hiring actors who had to learn their martial arts for the movie. The result is barely credible action and a whole lot of exploding energy fireballs to save the day. Even the most undemanding action movie junkie won’t find a whole lot about “Dragonball’s” action to hang their hat on. To be brutally honest, most of the kung fu in the film is the fictional product of director James Wong and his visual effects team. It’s only when the film’s characters slow down for one of their fancy slow-motion martial arts moves that the action is even remotely believable. I hasten to blame the actors for the lack of credible action, though you would think that, if the filmmakers were going to just hire relative unknowns for the movie, couldn’t they have hired people who actually knew martial arts to begin with?

The problem, of course, is that Chatwin, Rossum, and Marsters don’t exactly bring a whole lot to their roles. Not their fault, really, they are limited by their own abilities on and off the screen, though again, if the filmmakers were going to go the relative unknown cast route, you would have hoped for better action. The Wachowski brothers are good examples of hiring well-known actors to help sell the movie, but still forcing the actors to learn enough martial arts to make the action believable. What are James Wong and the producers’ excuse? Honestly, it’s hard to understand why such an important component of the movie (It’s a martial arts movie, dummies!) has been so casually disregarded. In fact, the only actor in the entire film who even looks like he’s seen a martial arts movie before is Chow Yun-Fat, and he doesn’t exactly come from a long line of wire-fu films even in his Hong Kong days.

The film’s other notable shortcoming is that “Dragonball: Evolution” feels rushed. The script by Ben Ramsay is so superficial and breezy that there isn’t a whole lot of time for silly things like well-developed pathos and character arcs. Goku is first seen as a goofy kid who knows a lot of martial arts, and 20 minutes later, he, Roshi, and Bulma are racing around the movie’s futuristic setting looking for Dragonballs. Likewise, Piccolo just appears in the sky one day with his flying lair (I don’t even know what you call that thing) with his comely assistant Mai (Eriko Tamura, of Heroes fame) and goes about his business. Apparently this futuristic version of Earth, with its mechanical bugs that can transform into ATVs and flying jeeps, is also devoid of aerial defense systems. I sure don’t wanna be around during an alien invasion!

But there is one silver lining to the movie: I saw “Dragonball: Evolution” with three of my nephews (all of them under 10 years old) and they all loved it. They were fans of the anime when it was on American TV a few years ago, and have watched or played various Dragonball incarnations over the years, and as kids are wont to do, they were easily impressed by the film’s action and heavy special effects. To be sure, they were clueless about the plot or why anyone was doing what they were doing, but they could have cared less. Which leads me to believe that as much a flop as the film has been at the North American box office, DVD sales for the movie should be relatively brisk, thanks to younger viewers like my nephews.

So what else is there to say about “Dragonball: Evolution”? Just this: if you’re older than ten, it really is as vapid and silly as you feared it would be from all the video clips, trailers, and photos that you’ve seen of the film. Having said that, the film is Rated PG and barely runs more than 80 minutes plus opening and closing credits, so who is to say you were the intended audience to begin with? At the end of the day, the undemanding viewer will find “Dragonball: Evolution” to be a goofy kids movie, and kids will love it because it was made for them. As for all you fans of the anime and manga, all I can say is, better luck next time. Maybe the Japanese will do it better, if and when they should take a stab at it. Of course, who’s to say the same people who rushed to damn the James Wong film won’t just be back to their old tricks again?

James Wong (director) / Ben Ramsey (screenplay), Akira Toriyama (novel)
CAST: Justin Chatwin … Goku
Yun-Fat Chow … Master Roshi
Emmy Rossum … Bulma
James Marsters … Lord Piccolo
Joon Park … Yamcha
Eriko Tamura … Mai
Randall Duk Kim … Grandpa Gohan
Jamie Chung … Chi Chi
Ernie Hudson … Master Mutaito

Buy Dragonball: Evolution on DVD