Dragonball: Evolution is a bad movie, but its brand of awful is so specific, the film is practically a time capsule. After the Star Wars trilogy, lots of 1980's filmmakers with grand ideas, limited talent and smaller budgets cranked out terrible, family-friendly fantasy films. Their mark is distinctive: silly, myth-based stories, shoddy-but-charming makeup and physical effects, and expansive but cheap-looking sets backed by obvious matte paintings. Dragonball: Evolution feels so much like those films, it's hard to believe it wasn't made 25 years ago, unearthed by modern movie producers, and stuck in theaters with a fresh coating of awful CGI.
Just like most 80's fantasy heroes, Goku (Justin Chatwin) is a whiny-yet-cocky, spiky-haired loner. He spends his free time sparring with his grandfather Gohan (Randall Duk Kim), punching flies into his mouth and trying to avoid his supernatural martial arts, all while balanced atop a set of laundry lines (not explained). On Goku's 18th birthday, Gohan gives the boy a dragonball, one of seven in the world. The evil warlord Piccolo (James Marsters) almost brought about the end of the world, but the creation of the dragonballs trapped him in some sort of cosmic prison and caused his werewolf-like sidekick Ōzaru to vanish (not explained). If all seven dragonballs are gathered in the same place, they'll grant one wish (not explained). Unfortunately for the world, Piccolo has escaped his prison (not explained) and is intent on collecting the dragonballs himself to resurrect Ōzaru. They show up at Goku's house looking for the dragonball, but Goku invariably arrives just in time to hear his grandpa's dying advice: find Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat), and fulfill your destiny.
That amount of myth seems like it'd sustain a whole movie, but Dragonball: Evolution also sticks Goku in high school, so he can face off against bullies who run over his bike and awkwardly pine over a girl named Chi-Chi (Jamie Chung). He's an unpopular kid, probably because he leers at Chi-Chi (she doesn't notice, but the movie actually cuts to her in a field of flowers, seductively eating a strawberry while he stares with a weird smile on his face) and announces some of his grandfather's wacko-sounding prophecies to his whole class. Later, when Goku's hundreds of miles away searching for the missing dragonballs, Chi-Chi conveniently happens to be training for a fighting tournament in the same place. Equally suspicious bits of coincidence in the screenplay include Goku taking his dragonball to a party for no reason (meaning it's not there when the villains show up trying to steal it), a girl named Bulma (Emmy Rossum) entering the story at just the right moment with a device literally invented to detect dragonballs, and Goku just plain falling in a hole in the road that happens to have a dragonball buried beneath it in a strange, lava-filled maze. Similarly, our heroes make numerous illogical, yet miraculously useful decisions. Upon falling in that hole, Master Roshi, Goku and Bulma apparently decide to sit at the bottom for several hours before Roshi almost randomly reveals he's able to jump out at any time (allowing both Roshi to tell a story and for Bulma's dragonball-locator to find the one buried beneath them), and after a solid 45 minutes of careful hunting for the other six sacred orbs -- in what seems to be the movie's central plot -- Roshi realizes they don't have enough time to find the rest, so they just give up and go to plan B without any hesitation.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that several scripts for the film were patched together by director James Wong on the set. Only writer Ben Ramsey is credited with the screenplay, but the amount of waste here is distressing. There are several prophecies and legends that Goku seems to be meant to live up to, but the movie seems confused and unsure of the details. A character named Yamcha (Joon Park) appears, and serves little purpose (he dug the hole) but tags along for no reason. Ernie Hudson shows up as a monk and gives Roshi a pot, which Roshi takes into battle and throws at Piccolo. It doesn't seem to do anything. Even Piccolo himself barely does anything but stand on the bridge of his ship looking grouchy. Goku and Piccolo don't meet until their final showdown, so how do they even recognize each other? Marsters is never threatening, but maybe it's okay because Justin Chatwin is rarely charismatic. He's got a little energy here and there, but some of his reactions (including his response to a high-tech transforming motorbike, shown in the movie's trailer) are hilariously emotionless.
Dragonball: Evolution takes place in the future, but how far in the future is hard to pinpoint. Bulma has her motorbike, but most of the movie just implies that technology has advanced rather than showing it (there's a cardboard box for a robot in Roshi's house, but no robot). Any technology we do get is remarkably simple (school lockers with credit-card style swipe keys) or unoriginal (Yamcha's jeep has wheels that fold under the car, allowing it to fly; Robert Zemeckis should sue). The special effects thriftiness doesn't stop there either: I'm absolutely, one-hundred-percent positive a shot of a foreign city being destroyed comes wholesale from another movie (Armageddon, if I'm not mistaken), and some lava monsters, designed by Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, look like they took their Alien suit, painted it white, and threw some more junk on it. The cheap nature of the visuals occasionally hampers the movie's storytelling ability, too. Early in the movie, Piccolo drops a little ball of energy towards the ground, and we zoom down to see a shanty town, slightly burning, but it's hard to know for sure if Piccolo actually blasted the town or just parted the clouds.
Yet, despite all of these numerous flaws, the movie just seemed harmless. It's hard to take a movie seriously that looks like it was shot on location inside the Wachowski's Speed Racer or feel anything but mild amusement as Chow Yun-Fat overacts and gets pelted with fake foam rocks. It's certainly not good, but I didn't feel the agonizing stretch of boredom or the sting of disinterest; if anything, the film had an air of earnestness about it that few movies made in these ironic times could even dream of. There's a scene early in the movie where Goku blows off a birthday party with his grandfather to go see Chi-Chi, and the deleted scenes reveal an extra shot of a hopeful Gohan, armed with a birthday cake, realizing he's alone, and slumping, crestfallen. Dragonball: Evolution isn't a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but in today's world, can you really hate a movie so quaint it couldn't bear to show you a broken-hearted grandfather?
The DVD, Video and Audio
Fox provided Dragonball: Evolution in a paper sleeve on a single-layer DVD-R, so I can't assess the packaging, the video or the audio. Internet research suggests, however, that the cover was designed by the same person who brought us the Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li cover: a bunch of people standing in front of a red background with a slanted logo. Invigorating!
I'd like to make a note before I go into this: people complained up and down when Paramount was decking all their DVDs out with cutesy edition titles (The "Bueller...Bueller..." Edition, the "Don't Call Me Shirley!" Edition, the "Holy Schnike" Edition), but I'd like to go on record as naming The "Z" Edition as the worst special edition title of all time. It hurts my brain, oh, it hurts my brain...
A reel of deleted scenes (10:25) starts things off, including the depressing grandpa scene. The only two of any note aside from that include a scene with a little more Ernie Hudson, and an alternate version of a character's demise, obviously altered to lower the movie's rating to a PG.
I almost don't know what to say about "Goku's Workout (4:51). It's meant to be sort of a fun karate tutorial for kids, and there was a similar extra on the Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five. The moves showcased on that DVD were mainly poses, and the feature was probably too boring for kids to sit still for. "Goku's Workout", on the other hand, plays exactly like every unintentionally funny instructional video you've ever seen, complete with extremely shoddy special effects, horrible jokes, and phenomenal advice, such as "punching is very important to be a warrior." It's honestly like someone at Fox watched a YouTube video making fun of Dragonball: Evolution, didn't get it, and put it on the DVD by accident.
Next, we get the music video for Brian Anthony's song "Worked Up!" (3:21). It's also unintentionally hilarious, but words cannot adequately describe it. A really unfunny gag reel (2:24) follows.
"Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making a Scene" (9:27) focuses on a relatively short fight scene in which Chi-Chi fights a lookalike impostor. "Even if you put on your DVD player and stop-frame it, you're still gonna say, 'I don't know how they did that'," claims an interviewee, at the end of the featurette, after they're done explaining it. Finally, we close with "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Life After Film School With Justin Chatwin" (24:55). The actor seems slightly spaced out during the entire interview, beginning with his claim that the most important thing is to focus on storytelling, followed by a sentence in which he claims the most important thing is also reading, travel, knowledge and hard work. He also suggests that Dragonball: Evolution is inspired by Joseph Campbell (only in the sense that it's structured after Star Wars) and claims he watched Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa and John Ford in preparation. Occasionally he seems to open up (his reaction to Chow YUn-Fat's performance seems genuine, and he starts to make a few wise comments about the adaptation process before slipping back into PR spin mode), but the most interesting part in the entire half-hour is a split-second where his brain seems to shut off entirely and the sensation that the lone male questioner is subtly making fun of him.
Automatic trailers for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and The Pink Panther 2 play when you put in the DVD, and an additional trailer for Garfield's Pet Force is on the special features menu. No trailer for Dragonball: Evolution is included.
If you're in charge of some really little, hardcore "Dragonball Z" fans for a weekend, you can at least rest assured knowing that Dragonball: Evolution is a old-fashioned tale of pure heroics, which is rare enough that I honestly consider it a positive. Too bad the movie's also really stupid. The bonuses range from terrible to amusing (seriously, "Goku's Workout" is amazing), but even if you absolutely, positively must check the movie out, renting it is the most I can recommend.
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