Adaptation is a tricky business, isn’t it? Different people have different views on what the goal of an adaptation is. In the case of manga to anime, most people lean towards absolute faithfulness to the source material, but a copy and paste can’t be the end goal. In most cases, regardless of intent, the goal of an adaptation is to expose an existing work to a wider audience, and in doing so, some changes are necessary, whether it’s to fit a new medium or to fit a different audience. Seven Samurai was westernized into The Magnificent Seven, and it did pretty damned well for itself. So, why can’t a live-action, westernized Dragon Ball adaptation work? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Goku gets turned into a teenager and the prom is tomorrow?
Whatever the case, I’ll be taking a look at Dragon Ball Evolution from a different stance. I’ll try my best to Devil’s Advocate here. At least until my mind shuts down.
We start off with a standard narrated prologue explaining that ancient wizards created the “Ma Fu Ba” to seal away an alien warlord named Piccolo, and in doing so, his powerful henchman Oozaru faded away. It’s practically the introduction to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and American kids love Power Rangers, so no problems here.
We transition with…
We are introduced to our main character via a series of unsettling closeups.
So… yeah. That’s Goku. He’s got that does-extreme-stuff-but-he’s-still-an-adult-not-a-high-school-student vibe. Like Levi Meeuwenberg. I’m going to guess they tried to get Levi Meeuwenberg and couldn’t, so they got some guy who looked close enough to him. Now, as for why they would want Levi Meeuwenberg to play Goku of all characters in the first place? That I can’t answer.
We soon learn that he’s in a training session with Grandpa Gohan and does well until he’s blindsided by a ki blast. It seems Goku here is a skilled fighter, but has much to learn about intangibles like inner strength. In a not-painfully-awkward bit of exposition, we learn that Goku is maybe bullied at school, not because he’s weak but because if he fights back he’d utterly destroy his opponents. So… that’s different. Betcha didn’t see that coming. Also, he’s awkward and doesn’t know how to speak to girls. Which is true of the original Goku, though in a completely different manner.
Props go out to casting since Randall Duk Kim is a fantastic Grandpa Gohan. It’s also pretty interesting to see Goku and Grandpa Gohan, y’know… interacting with each other. Anyway, before Goku runs off to school, Gohan gives him the four-star Dragon Ball, one of a set of seven balls that, when brought together, can grant “a single perfect wish.”
So, Goku goes to Unitech High School and has his bike crushed by a bully named Fuller. Yeah, Fuller. Right. So uh… Goku says Fuller has to pay for his bike and Fuller says “make me.”
Goku balls up a fist but doesn’t punch because… y’know, he’d totally wreck him. And so the bullies walk away and tease Goku because he had the balls to be the bigger man. It’s honestly kind of weird having a teenage protagonist that has the discipline to hold himself back and not be a cliche ball of hormones. I’m sure I’m going to eat those words later, but for now, it’s a fair assessment.
We cut to what appears to be an entirely different movie as we see a hooded Piccolo wearing foam abs.
Honestly, that can’t be his actual skin. I swear I can see a zipper on that thing. Actually, he doesn’t have those “abs” later on in the film, so.. yeah, that’s GOT to be a shirt!
Piccolo drops a ball of energy, utterly devastating a… 19th century Japanese village? The fuck is going on here?
Piccolo sends his henchwoman Mai to retrieve a Dragon Ball, and…
Yeah, I can’t defend this. The actress they got for Mai, Eriko Tamura, is dressed in a stereotypical Dragon Lady outfit complete with boob window, but her facial expressions rarely match the part. She looks like she’s continuously confused or afraid of something just out of sight. It’s almost as if she only agreed to play this part because her family was kidnapped.
A woman hides her child in a basement, but leaves her to give the Dragon Ball over to Mai to save her. Piccolo arrives, and for some reason, Mai apparently shoots the mother as we transition to Goku in school with a science teacher asking his class what causes solar eclipses. Oh, and apparently a solar eclipse is happening. That’s probably going to be a plot point. Goku makes googoo eyes at one of his classmates, and his delusions turn the classroom into a commercial for a Japanese fruit beverage.
So uh… Goku has a sex drive now, apparently. American children can relate?
His dream gets interrupted by the science teacher, who asks what our descendants would say about a solar eclipse. Goku says his grandfather would say “beware of the Nameks” (or Nimeks), an alien race that destroyed civilizations 2000 years ago. Yada yada yada, moving on.
So, Goku’s crush is having trouble getting into her high-tech locker, so Goku uses his ki to open ALL of the lockers. The girl, Chi Chi, notices this and apparently knows about ki. After an awkward conversation, she invites Goku to a party at her house. I have many questions, but first and foremost is: how many people are going to this party? Is it such a huge amount that it would seem suspect that she hadn’t invited Goku until just now? It would be pretty great if it broke the cliche of the popular kid having a block party and just had it a modest gathering of close friends.
So yeah, we cut to Goku getting all prettied up for the party – a process that involves putting hair gel on, because… honestly that’s a quality character gag.
And then his hair sticks up in sheer defiance of the hair gel. That’s pretty funny.
He leaves the house with the Dragon Ball, and without telling Grandpa Gohan where he’s going… which is weird because it’s not like they have a strained relationship. And he was spending so much time making chicken feet!
Anyway, on to the party…
Er… she DID say the party was at her place, right? Her living in a literal castle is pretty freaking awesome. I’m seriously digging the tongue-in-cheek references in this movie.
The bullies are there, and Goku said he made a promise not to fight. So he does what he probably should have done months ago and dodged everyone’s attacks in ways that make them look like stupid morons.
Now, strange thing about this fight is that Goku is acting a little cocky, with honestly nothing spurring him to do so. When Peter Parker did it in Spider-Man 1 it was because of the added confidence from gaining superpowers. When he did it in Spider-Man 3, it was because the symbiote was making him a colossal douchebag. Here, I guess Goku is powered by a girl noticing he exists? I’m half-expecting Goku’s antics are going to scare the girl off, but this is Dragonball Evolution. It’s been predictably cliche in spots and refreshingly unpredictable in others. I don’t know WHAT to expect.
So uh… the bullies end up destroying Fuller’s car, and Goku and Chi Chi have a bonding conversation. Like none of that even happened. Chi Chi says Goku is acting “different,” and that’s it. Okay. So… literally no one gives a fuck about the bullies. Why were they invited again? A screw it. We’ve got another hour to go.
We learn that Goku usually spends his birthday with his grandfather and that his heritage would be explained to him when he turns 18. Which is tonight. He even glances at the full moon kind ominously, and he just somehow senses that his grandpa is in danger. Because he is. Piccolo showed up and uses his dark side Jedi powers to crush Gohan’s heart and collapse the house. It’s not the best effect, but it’s pretty decently menacing.
Goku arrives just in time to hear Gohan’s last words, informing him to locate the remaining Dragon Balls and stop Piccolo before the solar ecli- WHERE THE HELL IS BULMA?! I’m sorry, but I just randomly realized that we now have Goku on a quest to find the Dragon Balls, and there’s no Bulma. That’s… pretty weird.
So, Goku lays Gohan to rest and suddenly he’s attacked by a chick with a gun. Huh. Ask and you shall receive, I guess.
So, rather than completely dye her hair blue, Bulma has highlights. Fair compromise.
Bulma is after a “Prometheum Orb” and tracked it to Goku, but hers has five stars while Goku’s has four. Whoops.
Her name is literally Bulma Briefs, and she’s a no-nonsense action girl with an itchy trigger finger. So far, so good. She’s the heiress to Capsule Corporation, which makes some really neat collapsing devices. Which brings me to something I’ve noticed about this setting: it’s weirdly futuristic, but not too futuristic, and there’s really no sense of scale, so I can’t tell just how impressed I’m supposed to be by certain things. And keep in mind, in this setting, Japan looks like it was scooped out of the 1800s. I have no idea what to make of that, but I do wish we explored the kind of world this is set in just a bit more.
The Dragon Ball Energy Locator, or DBE (get it?) brings our two heroes to an isolated house on an island in what appears to be a park pond. Odd place to build a house, but okay. Here, we’re introduced to Master Roshi, who is not bald but looks pretty badass.
Goku and Roshi fight, and… it’s pretty terrible. There’s some fakey speed effects on Goku’s unimpressive punches, and he does this stupid dance move before floating up and firing a ki blast at Roshi… which Roshi avoids, resulting in Bulma taking the blast. Funny, but I’m also wondering when the hell Goku learned both how to float and how to fire off ki blasts. Er, sorry, “shallow crane strikes.”
They find out Roshi is, well, Roshi, and inform him that Gohan is dead, Piccolo has returned, and the Dragon Balls have to be gathered. They find the Dragon Ball, and… Goku sees a vision. It happened earlier and I neglected to mention it, but for some reason, looking into a glowing Dragon Ball gives Goku visions of Piccolo and Oozaru.
Roshi leads Goku to a secret place where they can train in the elemental energies. He says “shallow crane strike” is the simplest of the air-bending techniques.
Ahahaha… yeah, not gonna go there.
So, turns out the “secret” training area isn’t so secret, as it’s filled with martial artists training and sparring for a big upcoming tournament. Chi Chi is there and we learn she’s a fighter too. ‘kay. So, Roshi won’t let Goku train there, but a Dragon Ball is nearby. They rush towards it but fall into a hole dug by the bandit, Yamcha.
Yamcha is… a human anomaly. He seems to be some kind of Hawaiian dudebro, and whenever he talks, it sounds like he’s being dubbed.
FOR SOME REASON, Mai knows that Roshi is training Goku. Piccolo decides to take care of the apparent problem (I feel like I’m missing something) by creating monsters brought to life with his blood and sending them at Goku. When they finally encounter Goku, he chops them down and uses their corpses as stepping stones so he can reach a Dragon Ball lodged in a rock in a volcano. Dark.
Shortly after the Dragon Ball is retrieved, Mai shows up, takes the ball, and is immediately caught by Goku. She gives him a punch that does 0 damage to him (tanking feats? we need more of those) and he just gut punches her away. It’s one of my favorite moments of the movie.
Another Dragon Ball acquired, another vision. Roshi realizes shit is hitting the fan soon and says if they can’t get the Dragon Balls soon enough, there’s an alternate way to beat Piccolo, but it’s conveniently in the same town as the upcoming tournament.
Now, the only reason Yamcha is with the group is because he was promised some of the profits from Bulma’s machine that would use the Dragon Balls as an energy source. But despite his obvious greed and overall annoying traits, he’s treated as part of the group for some reason. Interesting choice… probably would have been more tolerable if he had a better actor.
The alternate way to stop Piccolo seems to reside with Sifu Norris, who can prepare a containment vessel for the Ma Fu Ba, which Roshi plans to use to seal Piccolo away again in exchange for his life.
Meanwhile, the tournament is underway, and Chi Chi is doing well. It looks like Mai entered too with the intention of scratching Chi Chi with some kind of device. Probably poisoned. I’m vaguely interested in what effect it might have, but I’m more concerned with the fact that Chi Chi clearly noticed Mai using a hidden weapon but didn’t call for a disqualification. Maybe she considered it fair and was planning on using her blade helmet later.
Seriously, how awesome would it be if Chi Chi randomly had her blade helmet?
Elsewhere, Bulma and Yamcha are having a little pre-armageddon bonding. Because, well… apparently, they totally believe all the stories about the end of the world coming during the blood moon solar eclipse. I mean, they only knew this Goku kid and old man Roshi a couple days max. Also, Yamcha’s still a scumbag, right?
Bulma seems to have a minor epiphany that Piccolo can’t make his wish as long as they have their own Dragon Balls. So… was the prophecy about Piccolo making the wish? Does Piccolo need the wish to make the prophecy come true? I thought the eclipse was supposed to bring the Oozaru? Whatever.
Roshi teaches Goku the Kamehameha, which is the final airbending technique… which produces fire. Um…
Goku practices to master his ki but he can’t light the fires. Chi Chi shows up and gives him an incentive. The more fires he lights, the closer he’ll get to her. This Chi Chi sure has a high opinion of herself.
It works practically instantly. Then he flounders. Then he succeeds. It’s kind of weird.
We see Bulma catching Chi Chi sneaking out of Goku’s room, but it turns out she stole the Dragon Balls. Then it turns out it’s an imposter. Naturally, we can assume Mai’s plan was to somehow use Chi Chi’s blood to transform into a copy of her. So yeah, that’s a thing… and I’m not going to question it. Chi Chi fights Mai, and Goku tries to save her by knocking her out and getting shot by Mai.
Roshi saves Goku from the brink of death by delivering a Kamehameha to his chest. I mean, it’s an air technique that can produce fire. Who’s to say it can’t also start someone’s heart?
So, Piccolo now has all 7 balls and resurrects Shenlong. Our heroes drive to the Dragon Temple to stop him with the Ma Fu Ba in tow.
We finally get some ki-to-ki combat, and if there’s one major problem, it’s the arm motions. Rather than looking like someone gathering their inner strength and somehow launching it at their target, Roshi looks like he’s passing a basketball while Piccolo looks like he’s casting a spell out of an invisible wand.
Suddenly, Goku is in the orange gi Gohan left him… and it means absolutely nothing. One wonders why he took so long.
So, without any fanfare or dramatic tension, Goku approaches Piccolo and says he will defeat Oozaru. Piccolo tells Goku that Goku will become Oozaru, and… while people familiar with the source material will understand that, it comes off as out of fucking nowhere. WHY will Goku turn into Oozaru? Sure, maybe the visions could have been a clue, but… seriously, what? We need a little more background! The stuff about the truth of his birth, his missing parents, something happening on his 18th birthday… yeah, that stuff was present but the movie did fuck all with it until right now. Goku turns into the Oozaru and goes crazy.
Roshi uses the Ma Fu Ba to attempt to seal Piccolo away. Bulma holds on to a Dragon Ball to prevent the wish. Yamcha stays behind to hold Oozaru off (and is immediately pushed aside because… Oozaru).
The Ma Fu Ba fails because… of course it does, and Oozaru is about to kill Roshi when he’s inspired to… not be evil. Goku remembers a bunch of lines from throughout the movie and gets the Oozaru under control, accepting the Oozaru within him (this REALLY could have meant more).
We have a random Mai vs. Bulma fight that… isn’t bad for how quick it is. It ends with Yamcah shooting Mai in the back. That sounds about right.
Piccolo vs Goku part 1 is a rather entertaining ki blast exchange combined with freerunning. Huh. So that’s why they wanted Levi Meeuwenberg. Part 2 is basically Goku releasing his Oozaru power at Piccolo while screaming Kamehameha even though this Kamehameha is both nothing like the source material Kamehameha or the firey Kamehameha we’ve seen in the movie so far. It’s almost like the finale was filmed completely independently from the rest of the movie.
So… Piccolo is defeated, but Roshi is dead. So, the Dragon Balls are used to wish him back. The Dragon Balls are scattered now and have to be gathered for the sake of Bulma’s desire for fame and Yamcha’s desire for money. Goku returns to Chi Chi and gives her a kiss, then they have a fight. Swell.
Hey, who won the tournament?
It had some surprising hits in its portrayal of elements of the Dragon Ball world, and that’s more than what I expected at least.
Pleasure Rating: Guilty Pleasure
Oh, it’s bad. It’s, really freaking bad. But it could have been worse. It had a cheesy beginning and a bizarrely rushed anticlimactic ending, but it’s got a decent enough middle, Roshi is fun in his first few scenes, and it has a damned good Gohan. Even Bulma is written fairly well and just needed a more charismatic actress to really bring her character out.
Rewatchability: I wouldn’t be against it
Music: I like the ending credits theme
I’m still at a loss for who this movie was intended. Dragon Ball fans are going to be put off by a multitude of things, and it has no real draw for western viewers unfamiliar with Dragon Ball. Plus, it’s based on OG Dragon Ball, not Z, which immediately limits its appeal since Z is far more popular (even if it isn’t nearly as good). Honestly, this pretty much highlights the greatest flaw of the movie: its lack of an identity. There’s just not enough focus on any one thing that this movie wants to be. It could be a fun martial arts-focused adventure for kids if it wanted to. The weird semifuturistic east-west fusion of a setting isn’t too far off from Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo, but there are only hints of the setting’s traits, so it isn’t as memorable. There could have been a greater focus on Goku’s personal adventure rather than him just sort of getting pulled along by the forces of the drama around him.
In case you haven’t guessed, I didn’t think this movie was downright horrible. It got a surprising amount of things right, and if it had nurtured those elements right, it could have been… better. It had potential. It just needed more focus, better direction, better casting, more competent…. everything. It also had far too many mysteries in the script, and the school stuff was so unimportant (and quickly wrapped up) that one wonders if it was shoved in as a studio mandate.
Anyway, I watched all the deleted scenes, and we weren’t missing much. An earlier Goku strength feat where he lifts a car, some bad toilet humor, a short scene where he’s sad that he’s skipping out on Grandpa Gohan… and, weirdly, an alternate take on Mai’s death scene where Yamcha throws a knife into her back. That was something.