by Mel Valentin
Whenever a major Hollywood studio refuses to screen a film, regardless of genre, for film critics, it's usually a sign that said major Hollywood studio has zero confidence in the product they're about to unleash on an unsuspecting moviegoing public. Case in point, "Dragonball: Evolution," the live-action adaptation of Akira Toriyama's popular manga and anime of the same name (well, without the "Evolution" in the title) directed by James Wong ("Final Destination") and written by Ben Ramsey. Incomprehensible to non-fans and an insult to fans of Toriyama's manga and/or anime, "Dragonball: Evolution" is an object lesson in how not to adapt manga or anime into a live-action, feature-length film. Unfortunately, the failure of "Dragonball: Evolution" will do little, if anything to stop or slow down the adaptation of manga or anime into other media.From the first shot, an extreme close-up of Son Goku’s (Justin Chatwin) sweaty face, Dragonball: Evolution sets up the “Hero’s Journey” popularized by George Lucas in Star Wars (who, in turn, found his inspiration in Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking study of myths across time and cultures, Hero of a Thousand Faces). Goku’s grandfather, Obi-Wan Kenobi… Gohan (Randall Duk Kim) tests Goku’s physical and mental skills and finds him wanting. Gohan admonishes Goku to have faith in himself and also to be himself. There’s talk of the Force-like ”ki,” the seemingly mystical energy that binds all things together. Since Goku’s still in high school, though, Gohan decides to finish his lecture at another time, but gives Goku his birthday present, a Dragonball. Gohan explains the Dragonball’s significance: a mystical power orb, it’s one of seven. If gathered simultaneously and aligned properly on an eclipse, the Dragonballs will grant their owner access to a mystical dragon, Shen Long, who, in turn, will grant their owner one wish.
"The words "don't bother" apply here."
Goku faces the usual indignities saved for the extremely unpopular in high school: he’s picked on by the jocks, but can’t respond with force. Things begin to look up for Goku, however, when Chi Chi (Jamie Chung), a popular girl who Goku crushes on, miraculously invites him to her party that night. While at the party, Lord Piccolo (James Marsters), a green-skinned, pointy-eared alien just out from a two thousand-year prison sentence, stops by Goku and Gohan’s residence with his henchwoman, Mai (Eriko Tamura). Piccolo wants to collect all seven Dragonballs so he can usher in the (or “a”) apocalypse with the help of a demon servant, Oozaru (Ian Whyte). Furious, he destroys Goku and Gohan’s house, with Gohan inside. Back from the party, Goku finds Gohan, dying from his wounds. Before he dies, Gohan says something about a prophecy and sends Gohan to his one-time instructor, Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat).
Almost immediately, Goku runs into Bulma (Emmy Rossum), a young woman who claims she has a Ph.D. in Applied Dynamics (and, apparently a minor in Weapons Training) who’s also after the Dragonballs (she calls them "Promethean orbs"). Bulma’s industrialist father had a Dragonball in his possession, but Piccolo and Mai stole it. Bulma wants to convert the Dragonballs into an unlimited energy supply (and profit from it, of course). After meeting Roshi, Goku and Bulma’s encounter Yamcha (Joon Park), a thief also interested in the Dragonballs. From there, Dragonball: Evolution includes the obligatory training scenes, with Goku struggling to control his “ki,” Piccolo’s machinations to get Goku’s Dragonball, and a perfunctory romantic subplot that pairs Goku with Chi Chi (and, later Bulma with Yamcha).
Dragonball: Evolution is far more incoherent than the preceding synopsis might suggest. No matter now many times someone tries to explain the significance of the Dragonballs and/or tie the Dragonballs into an apocalyptic prophecy, Dragonball: Evolution makes less and less sense. Ramsey’s screenplay relies on repetition, usually in clunky exposition scenes, to explain the backstory. We never get an explanation for Piccolo’s hatred of humanity or even how he managed to escape from his magically powered prison deep in the bowels of the earth. That’s nothing, however, compared to the insipid, clichéd dialogue or the uni-dimensional characters.
Chow Yun-Fat, practically repeating the mentor role from Bulletproof Monk six years, seems to enjoy hamming up the sub-banal dialogue, probably in the vain attempt to keep himself and, later on, the audience, awake during Dragonball: Evolution. That’s more than can be said for everyone else. As Goku, Chatwin sleepwalks through his role, with the exception of the fight scenes where he grimaces and grunts a lot. Emmy Rossum barely registers as the redundant Bulma. As Yamcha, Joon Park appears in a handful of scenes, primarily to give Rossum’s character a romantic interest. Bulma and Yamcha could have been easily eliminated from Dragonball: Evolution with zero impact on the storyline.Whatever its (many) faults, at least "Dragonball: Evolution" doesn’t overstay its welcome, running 74 minutes without credits (82 minutes with credits). "Dragonball: Evolution" wins points (assuming anyone's keeping score) for its short running time, due partly to a thin storyline and a limited budget. With the exception of the final battle (which isn't so final) between Goku and Piccolo, the fight scenes are notable ("notable" actually meaning "not notable at all") for their brevity, a mix of unimaginative wire fu and, again, mostly in the final battle, a colorful light show (blue for Goku and red for Piccolo, of course). Wong and 20th-Century Fox obviously expected "Dragonball: Evolution" to succeed, if not critically (a given, to be honest), then commercially. Wong inserts a mid-credits sequence meant to spur interest in a sequel. That optimism, however, was unwarranted.
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originally posted: 04/10/09 21:00:00