“The first rule is that there are no rules.” Such is the opening advice Dragonball Evolution’s protagonist, Goku, receives from his Grandfather, Gohan. While the advice figures prominently into the plot of the movie, I have to wonder if the filmmakers behind the adaptation realized how much that same aphorism was guiding their creation. While Dragonball isn’t anywhere close to being as painful as other similar type adaptations, the movie is pretty much nothing but eye candy, a live action anime that will appeal to fans of the original, but offers nothing of substance or interest to anyone not already familiar with Goku’s story.
The story for the movie goes something like this: centuries ago, an alien named Piccolo (an abusively underused James Marsters) came to Earth to destroy it, aided by the demon Oozaru. The duo were defeated, with Piccolo trapped in an urn under the protection of powerful charms. Fast forward to a future not that distant from our own and Piccolo has somehow gotten free. He’s searching for the seven mystical Dragonballs, orbs that, when put together, will grant the power of one true wish to the wielder. The young teenaged Goku (Justin Chatwin) is gifted with one of the Dragonballs on his eighteenth birthday and, as he realizes what Piccolo is doing, he sets off to find the others, aided by a motley group of companions he assembles along the way.
The movie boasts a lot of talent for an adaptation of a comic book / animated series that is years past its prime. Frankly, it’s a pool of talent that a movie like this isn’t quite worthy of. Some earn their place in this disappointing picture (Justin Chatwin, of The Invisible, continues to disappoint by squandering his talent on useless teen-angst roles) while others beg the question of how they got involved in the first place (Emmy Rossum - what bet did she lose?). One thing is pretty consistent though: regardless of the talent of the actor, the characterization is ridiculously over the top. While Chatwin and Marsters are actually pretty subdued, performances by Rossum, Joon Park, and Chow Yun-Fat as Goku’s companions feel like they stepped out of an anime series and landed here. All that are missing at times are the oversized eyes, tears springing out at the appropriate moments, and poorly dubbed vocal performances… and in Park’s case that last one actually feels like it’s there at times.
The story for Dragonball is an exercise in randomness. We learn in the opening narration that Piccolo was trapped by ancient masters. For the story, we need a villain, so he escapes captivity. We are never given the information how this happens. It just does. We watch as the two different sides hunt down six of the seven Dragonballs, but the writers or editors must have decided that was taking too long, because this is abandoned after six are tracked, with the seventh one just showing up.
Later on in the movie, the story gets even more ridiculous, with vehicles transforming out of necessity and characters changing costumes just to appear in something faithful to prior incarnations. These aren’t occurrences I would take issue with if they were set up well, but here these things just happen with no real setup or explanation. Sure, it moves the story forward, but it doesn’t feel like there was any craft or skill used in putting this together. Maybe the things that feel random to me are because I’m not familiar with the original story, and everyone who is familiar knows these things. Failing to set these things up within the film itself, explaining the rules of the movie, if you will, follows the guidance Gohan gives Goku - the first rule is there are no rules, so don’t expect the movie’s events to follow anything of the sort.
For all of its shortcomings, Dragonball Evolution is entertaining enough to watch. Only one scene really falls into the trend of fast-paced editing that kills the context of what’s going on, and mostly the visual side of movie is actually pretty good. Sure, Marsden looks kind of silly in that rubber molded armor chestplate when he’s standing still, but the action sequences keep the film moving forward well enough, and don’t draw any unneeded or negative attention. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t much of substance here to be enjoyed along with the visuals.
Existing fans of Dragonball will probably enjoy this live action take on the saga they’ve followed for so many years, although I wonder if the movie isn’t a few years late to capitalize on that market. For those foreign to the existing saga, Dragonball Evolution is a light dose of popcorn action without much sense or substance to what’s going on.