Movie: One of the most copied types of anime series is the fighting show. It is a very common thread in the anime world and a proven success so it should come as no wonder that companies would emulate one another (ie: rip each other off) after the tremendous success of series like Pokemon. The latest release of such a show that I got my hands on to review was Dragon Drive 5: Friends In Need; a show geared to a younger crowd that seemed very familiar to me as I watched the three episodes it contained on the fifth DVD in the series. Before I get too far into the review, please keep in mind that missing out on the first four volumes (containing the first 15 episodes of the series) really hampered my understanding of the specifics here so any misunderstandings on my part about the content is probably related to this fact.
Much like a combination of the competition in Angelic Layer and the virtual reality premise of Hack//Slash, Dragon Drive 5: Friends In Need, was the story of a young slacker drawn into a virtual reality game where fighting various opponents was a means to an end. The lead character, Reiji, has supposedly built up his statistics by fighting a number of other characters, some of whom befriend him over the course of the series. The trick here is that the computer analyzes your DNA and invents a dragon (yes, as in fire breathing, fantasy role playing, dragon) to match your strengths. As you win matches against other dragons, your dragon's abilities grow and you move up the rankings. The ultimate goal appeared to be obtaining something called "Dragonite" by winning the championship but it was unclear as to the specifics that entailed.
Thankfully, while episode 16: The Catch, and 17: The End of Revenge, left me completely clueless, episode 18: The Journey, was a recap of the previous episodes (from the beginning). While there was obviously a lot of detail left out of that episode, at least it gave me something solid to go on after trying to figure out the status of the series at the point I joined in. The show itself was designed to capture the youth market that Pokemon and similar series rather than a more sophisticated older crowd but it had a few shining moments worth watching for (the themes were morally based as with most children's shows).
By itself, Dragon Drive 5: Friends In Need, was kind of a tough act to follow but as part of the entire series, it might've been worth more than the Rent It I gave the volume in hand. As far as replay value is concerned though, I'd be lying if I said that a couple of episodes and a recap were enough to make this reviewer happy as I need at least four full episodes to feel like the DVD is worth a decent rating. If you have a child that likes this kind of thing, he or she may enjoy the show more than I did but it was limited in numerous ways so don't spend a lot of money for it.
Picture: Dragon Drive 5: Friends In Need was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color that it was original produced in when made for Japanese television. The colors were bright but the animation techniques employed were the kind you'd find on a syndicated show on cable (making Pokemon look sophisticated by comparison). The backgrounds were almost completely static and the movement of the foreground characters very limited as well. Otherwise, the transfer was okay but nothing special and my overall impression of the show was that it was produced on a very low budget, very quickly, in order to cash in on some contemporary shows that it borrowed heavily from.
Sound: The audio offered the same choices as most anime series do these days with the standard (and original) 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track as well as a 2.0 Dolby Digital English language dub. The vocals of the original track were superior in many ways; from the timing to the manner in which they sounded but I have to give some measure of credit to the dub cast since they apparently had less to work with (by this I mean the translation was dumbed down a bit). Otherwise, the music of the dub seemed slightly different, maybe a bit heavier on the bass (and treble amazingly enough), but certainly better. The same held true for the special effects, almost as if Bandai had enhanced them for our market (much like ADV Films is known for doing).
Extras: The extras included a heavy plastic prism card (the size of the DVD case) of Hayate Slash, a paper insert, a few trailers, and a very short production sketches sequence. While this would be standard for a DVD having four full episodes, there were only three here so I felt a bit gypped at the overall package.
Final Thoughts: Dragon Drive 5: Friends In Need was too childish for my tastes and I suppose taking chances on a series that I'd heard nothing about previously gives me the insight to know that more thorough investigation is sometimes needed when picking anime series to review but it wasn't all bad if you enjoy the so called "more of the same old stuff" that this series offers. The fights themselves were fun and the technical limitations weren't so bad as to keep me from watching the following volume (look for the review in a day or two) but like most series, it probably works better when you see it from the beginning.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk