Dragonball Evolution: Z Edition (US - BD RA)
Gabe collects all 7 Dragon Balls and wishes he didn't enjoy this dumb movie
Thousands of years ago the evil alien Piccolo (James Marsters) came to Earth, and with the help of his servant Oozaru brought the planet to the brink of destruction. Piccolo was defeated by five mystics, who trapped him in a mystic jar. Centuries later a talented martial artist named Goku (Justin Chatwin) is taught special Ki harnessing techniques by his grandfather, all while living as a social outcast. But then Piccolo returns, and begins a destructive quest for the seven magical Dragon Balls, which will give him the opportunity to make a single, perfect wish, to rule the world.
Confession time: I watch Dragon Ball in its many incarnations ( Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT), and I don’t have a valid excuse like many of you – I didn’t watch the series as a kid, and thus can’t claim stupefying nostalgia. I was introduced to it as an adult via Cartoon Network when it played during my lunch break a few years back. I was initially rightfully disgusted at the cheap animation, the long winded and repetitive dialogue, and the thin plotting. Eventually I found myself drawn into the series several hundred episode super-plot, but even this wasn’t a credible excuse, as creator Akira Toriyama basically lifted all his arcing ideas on other popular stories (not to mention the brutally slow pacing of each episode). The original origin of Goku, as seen in Dragon Ball, is liberally taken from the classic Chinese epic ‘Journey to the West’, while the sci-fi retcon of Dragonball Z is a pale shadow of the Superman myth, with the important distinction of Goku being rocketed to Earth to destroy it. Later story arcs stole from Cameron’s Terminator series, of all things. The only reasons I can gather for my unnatural affection towards the series, which doesn’t even feature exciting or coherent action, is Toriyama’s characterizations – which are arch, but somehow pleasingly convoluted in a Soap Operatic fashion – and his bizarre sense of humour (I find his visions of a red-tape strangled afterlife is a constant source of laughs).
The big hurdle in converting Dragon Ball into live action is that Toriyama’s world is equal parts anachronistic and futuristic, so it doesn’t make sense when adapted to a realistic setting. During the series the fate of the world constantly rested in the hands of a small group of kung-fu fighters in a time of advanced technology, technology several times beyond simple nuclear weapons. This adaptation takes the futurist elements more seriously than the fantasy elements, but the overall otherworldliness is maintained, only without the dinosaurs and alien Gods. Piccolo’s spaceship is a good sample of the mixed look, inexplicably running on some kind of dueling propeller and jet power, and appearing far rounder than most villainous big screen aircraft would ever dare. If the production had only topped $10 million or so I’d probably be more impressed with this pseudo original filmic universe director James Wong conjured (the scene in which Goku and Bulma discover Roshi’s old fashion house in the middle of a Blade Runner-like cityscape verges on magical), but apparently the film cost something north of $100 million (or $50 million, or $120 million, depending on who you believe), so it’s hard to genuinely respect these plasticized images, even if the look was intended.
Producer Stephen Chow probably should’ve taken the reigns on directing this bad boy, but his production influence in apparent in some of the funnier scenes. The more obviously Chow inspired stuff (which is in-keeping with Toriyama’s sense of humour) is almost all equally un-American in tone, and generally speaking, the more Dragonball Evolution reminded me of Chow’s other films, the more I liked it. All the high school antics aren’t just out of place thematically (even if Goku’s son did have some traditional high school adventures towards the end of DBZ), but they’re stuffed with tired clichés, and exist far outside of the realms of the delightfully foreign humour of the rest of the film. This stuff was clearly added in hopes of making the film more acceptable to American audiences.
Chow probably could’ve handled the film’s combat scenes a little better than Wong as well. The epic level kung-fu destruction that accompanied the relatively low-budgeted Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle draw easy comparisons to Dragon Ball’s action excesses, and when Chow was first announced as being involved in Dragonball Evolution I personally took it as a good sign. Wong’s pretty good with suspense and dark humour (as seen in Final Destination and Willard), but his action work has always been lacking real energy (save one or two shots in the otherwise dreadful The One). Wong manages to keep things visually intriguing, but he’s a practiced director, and on the whole the film appears disappointingly amateur. Last year’s equally youth-aimed Forbidden Kingdom, which was also loosely based on ‘Journey to the West’, features vastly superior martial arts sequences. First time action director Rob Minkoff had the advantage of working with Yuen Woo-ping, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, but Wong really doesn’t achieve much beyond a few quick kicks and punches. The final battle, in particular, is a huge disappointment, even with low expectations firmly in place.
The adaptation is relatively true to the original show, or at least the basic character elements are. Master Roshi collects porn, Bulma’s a smartass, but gets things done, Chichi is dull, Piccolo is pissy and proud, and so on and so forth. Despite fans likely hating everything about his involvement in the project, Chow Yun Fat’s hammy comedy performance as Roshi is just about the most spot on element in the entire thing (not to mention the most entertaining). The big exception in the character front is Goku, who’s written as an angsty and angry teen, with very few of his cartoon counterpart’s dimwitted charms (on the show Goku’s power is somewhat associated with his idiotic innocence, which is a novel heroic aspect to Westerners). The story itself is a loose adaptation of the original Dragon Ball arc (which, again, is basically an adaptation of ‘ Journey to the West’ with the added MacGuffin action of the dragon balls), mixed with elements of the two King Piccolo arcs, which is a reasonably clever way to set up this film as the precursor to a series of films, which I’m assuming would’ve delved deeper into the science fiction aspects of the more popular Dragonball Z series.
Taking all the lack of originality into account, the lack of a compelling, villainous threat is still a large problem. Sure, he destroys entire landscapes with a simple flick of the wrist, but Piccolo doesn’t feature any actual character traits beyond being evil and green. Even the deleted scenes don’t tell us how he escaped from his damn bottle prison. Perhaps if the screenwriters hadn’t given him a sexy lady sidekick to do his bidding he would’ve at least gotten some screen time (Nerd Alert: Mai was the name of a different character’s sidekick in the series), but then we wouldn’t have gotten to look at Eriko Sakamoto in that sexy outfit. Tit for tat I suppose, if ‘tat’ means character development. On the whole, the film appears to have been produced with the shortest possible run time in mind (like every genre film that comes out of the Fox studio), so perhaps Piccolo was a casualty of brevity. Actually, beyond the God awful dialogue (which was to be expected), the relentless pacing is probably the film’s biggest downfall, though some viewers will probably find the runtime painlessly brief. The story is basically broken into three distinct parts – the ‘real world’ of high school, the hero’s journey, and the incoherent last act battle/revelation – and each part feels like an entirely different, unfinished movie. Perhaps without the first half hour of misplaced high school hijinx the protagonists could’ve actually hunted down more than two of the five remaining dragon balls, and the last act wouldn’t have felt quite so tacked-on or attention deficit inspired.
It’s stupid, and the CG is about as believable as first grade Photoshop work, but it looks pretty sharp in high definition. The clarity makes the cartoony aspects appear even more unrealistic, which ends up a sort of mixed blessing. Because it’s based on a cartoon, and generally aimed at children, I tend to like the cartoony aspects, but I’m sure the aging fans of the original series expected some kind of grim reality. In hi-def the less than stunning effects, candy coated colours, lumpy sets, and flashy costumes really stick out. There’s quite a bit of grain over the entire print, but it’s very fine in thickness, and very consistent. Compression noise is visible during a few scenes, mostly in the reddened flesh tones. Minus the grain and a little digital noise, this is an impeccable transfer, and the bright colours rest nicely against each other without any hue perversion or unintended blooming. Contrast levels seem a little inconsistent, but the final battle features some of the cleanest samples of fine colour details against rich blacks.
The LFE track apparently lives within Piccolo’s ship, which vibrates at an almost deafening rumble. There’s a little oomph shared with some of the explosions and punches for good measure. The DTS-HD track’s successes are found in its aggressive otherworldly sound effects, which fill the channels, and move believably through them. It would’ve been a little more fun to feature at least some of the series’ more memorable sound effects (such as the sound it makes when characters charge their powers up), and the effects chosen are somewhat uninspired, but for purposes of the Blu-ray’s sound quality things sound just great. The problems are found in the dialogue track, which is clean and clear, but often unnatural. It appears that several scenes required ADR work, and that certain actors were entirely dubbed in post. Lip-sync is generally pretty accurate, but the inflections and actual sounds often don’t quite match. Brian Tyler’s (a name that keeps coming up lately) score rips-off Gustav Holst on several occasions (which isn’t a surprise), and generally feels like a less memorable version of a John Williams sleepwalking session, but the music does its job, and I’m thankful the filmmakers didn’t go for the goofy rock scores that met the US releases of the series (well, for the most part). The mix keeps the score pretty remarkably understated on the track, but it has a constant presence.
Wilhelm Alert: The team discovers a training ground, and Chichi is fighting on a big fake rock. When Chichi knocks her male opponent off the rock a low level Wilhelm scream can be heard.
The rather tepid extras start with an interactive mode called ‘Goku’s Quest’ (Nerd Alert: the menu refers to Goku as a ‘Saiyan’, which the movie never does). This game requires the viewer to hit the red button on their remote every time a dragon ball icon appears on the screen. If you find all seven you get a prize. I didn’t find all seven, so I can’t tell you what the prize is.
Next are eight deleted and extended scenes (11:00, HD). The final film feels like its missing chunks of plot, but these scenes aren’t really what the film needed. Goku learns more about controlling his ‘Ki’, lifts a car, gets to know Bulma a little better, ditches his grandfather for the girl (pathos alert), gets a little more training, and fights monsters slightly longer. Yamcha also murders Mai by stabbing her in the back. The briefly extended stuff probably could’ve been put back in, but still wouldn’t complete the final product. The scenes are hi-def, and presented in 5.1 surround, but obviously aren’t finished products, as digital grading is missing.
‘Goku’s Workout’ (4:50, HD) is a brief how-to fight exercise thing that ironically opens with a ‘don’t try this at home’ warning. Next are two Fox Movie Channel featurettes. ‘Making a Scene’ (9:30, SD) covers the production of the Chichi vs Chichi fight scene, and the ‘Life After Film School’ (25:00, HD) kids interview actor Justin Chatwin. Chatwin is actually a fantastic interviewee, and I genuinely feel sorry for the script he was dealt. The disc ends with a gag reel (2:20, HD) featuring a much different Oozaru design, and Brian Anthony’s ‘Worked Up!’ music video (3:21, HD). Personally I would’ve liked some kind of featurette concerning the adaptation, comparing the live action and cartoon counterparts.
Dragonball Evolution will not and should not be mistaken for a good movie, but I have to shamefully admit that I found it sort of stupidly entertaining. Perhaps with a polish it could’ve been something more than not awful. The stilted dialogue and lack of originality are to be expected, but the script shows some promise as a relatively true adaptation, and the art design is occasionally inspired. At the very least it’s a better movie than the unofficial Hong Kong version, which was kind of a nightmare. I actually would’ve liked to see what these guys did with a sequel, but terrible returns seem to have undone that possibility. The Blu-ray is light on extras, but looks pretty great, and sounds good, even if the dialogue is a little off in some parts.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 28th July 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish, and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin
Extras: Guko's Quest Game, Deleted Scenes, Guko's Workout, Making the Scene, Life After Film School, Trailers, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: James Wong
Cast: Justin Chatwin, Chow Yun-Fat, James Marsters
Genre: Action, Adventure and Fantasy
Length: 85 minutes
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