Film Torments: Dragonball Evolution (2009)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan powers up to take down the Mr. Satan of Dragon Ball media.

If you’ve been on the internet – or happened to be growing up at the turn of the millennium – the chances are that you’ve heard of Dragon Ball at some point. The brainchild of gas-mask aficionado Akira Toriyama, the original manga almost single-handedly catapulted the shōnen genre into the worldwide prominence it enjoys today, where buff young dudes fight each other very hard while proclaiming devotion to the basic tenets of human decency and slavish self-improvement. When the Dragon Ball Z anime left Japanese shores at the end of the 1990s, the combination of violent beam struggles and powerful screaming was (eventually) potent enough for the series to explode in the West, making it one of the few shōnen properties to command such attention on both sides of the globe.

Given this unprecedented popularity, a cinematic adaptation seemed almost inevitable. Of course, Dragon Ball had received numerous “movies”, as is often the case with popular anime, but it had never begotten a(n official) live-action adaptation. In 2002, 20th Century Fox acquired the film rights for that very task, and proceeded to do nothing with them for five years before green-lighting what would become Dragonball Evolution on, reportedly, a $30 million budget. (Or $100 million, depending when you ask.)

Adapting a Japanese property for a Western audience – and vice-versa – is always going to be a challenge, regardless of the competence of its guiding hands. It’s especially difficult when we consider just how beloved the Dragon Ball franchise is on a global scale. Unfortunately, the competence of the guiding hands in the case of Dragonball Evolution was crippled: the film is an infamous disaster; a barely-90-minute crawl that falls apart within seconds as Goku (Justin Chatwin) trains alongside his adoptive grandfather, Gohan (Randall Duk Kim).

Immediately, cognitive dissonance sets in. For a film released in 2009 – long after the 2007 writers’ strike had crippled Hollywood, by the way – its aesthetic more closely resembles American Pie. Even more egregious, the film forgoes the original manga’s fantastical, Journey to the West-inspired trappings for a high school setting, complete with stock jock bullies and a dreamy crush, Chi-Chi (Jamie Chung). It’s a cynical decision devoid of the imagination present in Toriyama’s original, instead relying on easy stereotypes to elicit cheap laughs. Audiences are smarter than this.

When the film leaves these stale confines, we’re whisked off to nondescript wastelands where nothing is allowed to settle, as plot points are raised and abandoned with equal velocity. As is often the case with adaptation sickness, none of the characters in the film retain the charm or personality of their manga equivalents, and all are boiled down to a single characteristic. Bulma (Emmy Rossum) is brash; Chi-Chi is humble; Piccolo (a make-up laden James Marsters) is evil. There is no nuance to be found anywhere as narrative conveniences pile on top of the next.

Goku is the most diminished in this reductive process – Chatwin is hopelessly lost in portraying the character, hindered at all turns by aimless direction and embarrassing one-liners. In Evolution, Goku is a cipher; he walks into the frame, sometimes raises an eyebrow, and wanders about while people talk at him for minutes at a time. While the titular, wish-granting Dragon Balls are the MacGuffins that propel the plot of both the original manga and the film, they’re accessories to the character stories that occur in pursuit of them. In Evolution, the characters are so threadbare that the Dragon Balls become the plot entirely.

Given these circumstances, it’s impossible to invest in the narrative as is, and it’s only compounded as the heroes are strung along by torrents of exposition and the bizarre over-acting of Chow Yun-fat, whose Master Roshi is the single, remotely redeeming aspect of the entire film. Lord Piccolo, the central villain, appears in three separate scenes (including flashbacks) before the final showdown, rendering the imminent threat of his conquest void in the process. Said showdown – the only time where the action even vaguely resembles the cataclysmic confrontations of the manga and anime – is laughable, the actors flailing around in the air on obvious wires like they’re crippled marionettes, complete with CGI that wouldn’t look out of place on a Windows 2000 screensaver.

Part of the reason why Dragon Ball became so popular – probably the reason – was its fights. The original manga emphasised martial arts, inspired by the kung-fu films of the Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest. Inevitably, muscular people kicking the shit out of each other escalated from hand-to-hand contests to something else entirely; by the time Z began with the Saiyan Saga, these fights became quite literally earth-shattering, setting the standard by which shōnen battles were judged. Evolution’s fight scenes had a lot to live up to and failed on every metric. The kinetic fury present in the manga and anime is completely absent, replaced with a frenetic camera and horribly dated slow-motion. The performers look like they’re throwing punches through treacle, and the moves lack any sense of impact. It’s simply embarrassing.

What better way to describe the film as a whole? Dragonball Evolution is an utter embarrassment, both to its squandered source material and cinema as a whole. Toriyama, who served as executive producer on Evolution, was so mortified by the final product that he wrote Battle of Gods, an anime continuation of the Z series. It proved popular enough to kickstart Dragon Ball Super, which recently went on hiatus after a successful 130+ episode run and a stupidly enjoyable movie in Broly.

Dragon Ball on the whole is healthier than ever, of course, as the Super manga spirals off into its own narrative arc and rumours of more movies propagate on the horizon. Evolution, meanwhile, will cling to its strange, ignoble place in the franchise’s legacy, denied of the sequels it shamelessly baited, doomed to eternal mockery as the years grind on; a testament to how a poor adaptation can completely betray the intentions of the original work.

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