Before I even walked into the theater, I knew Dragonball: Evolution had three strikes against it: It was a live-action film based on a cartoon, it was an American film that debuted in foreign markets, and it wasn’t screened for critics. All signs pointed to “train wreck”, but walking out of it, I’d actually hesitate to call it a bad film. Granted, it wasn’t good, but I’ve definitely seen worse films in my life. Hell, I’ve seen worse films just in this year alone.
Goku (Justin Chatwin) is a friendless, awkward teenager in high school who gets picked on by meat-headed bullies. Outside of school, he trains in martial arts and lives with his grandfather, Gohan (Randall Duk Kim), in a house in the middle of… let’s just say nowhere. On his eighteenth birthday, Goku is given a glowing ball called a “dragonball” (“Hey! Like in the title of the movie!”) which, when combined with the other 6 titular orbs allows the possessor to grant one “perfect wish.”
The Big Bad of the film is Piccolo (James Marsters), a green-skinned, pointy-eared alien who tried to take over the world centuries ago, but was thwarted by ancient mystics who cast a spell and sent him into purgatory. On the eve of a solar eclipse, Piccolo escapes from his magical imprisonment (How? Good question — the film never says) and seeks the balls (tee-hee) for himself in a bid for world domination. Now it’s a race against time as Goku looks for the balls (tee-hee) with the help of poorly-acted characters, like Bulma (Emmy Rossum) and Yamcha (Joon Park).
Given how insane and far reaching the original cartoon/manga of Dragonball was, it’s amazing the filmmakers could make a semi-cohesive, hour-and-a-half long film out of its source material. It helped that bizarre characters like Oolong, the shape-shifting anthropomorphic pig and Puar, the flying talking cat, weren’t in the film. (Those are actual characters from the animated show. Seriously.)
To make sure new inductees to the Dragonball universe wouldn’t feel alienated, the filmmakers kept Evolution grounded by placing it in a reality not too far removed from our own. Sure, there’s technology used in the movie that’s light years beyond what we have now, physics-defying action scenes and magic spells being cast (into the darkness), but at least everyone wears normal street clothes, Goku doesn’t have a tail and there are no talking animals. Unfortunately, by trying to make the film more “real”, a backlash from the film’s intended fanbase has brewed. (For reference, check out the negative comments on the film’s IMDb page. They’re hilarious.)
Some people out there can probably appreciate the fact that this film follows Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to a T (Hi, Page!), chronicling Goku’s journey from high schooler to world saver. Sad thing is that it’s been done better in better films. Dragonball: Evolution suffers from “been there, done that” syndrome and is too competently made to warrant full-on Mystery Science Theater 3000 type jeers. If I were a child — say, 8 to 12 — I’d think Dragonball: Evolution could be one of the best movies ever, as it’s entertaining and exciting enough for kids to enjoy. However, people already well-versed in films would/should know better.
In the end, it’s a kids film; it’s refreshingly itself and without pretense. As one of my friends would say, “It is what it is.” If anything, I would say the film’s biggest crime is how mediocre it is — not good enough to recommend and not crappy enough to make fun of.
Well… at least Ernie Hudson is still getting work.
5 out of 10