Saturday, May 09, 2009

Dragonball Evolution | Oh Please Don't Do It Again!

Asian culture has had a massive influence on North America over the past decade and a half, to the point where nearly every popular children’s animated series is now either being imported from Japan or created in the same art style, virtually every horror movie is required to have creepy children in it, and the majority of action movies made since The Matrix has tried to emulate the same slick martial arts choreography. Now the latest trend in Hollywood has producers trying to repackage some of the biggest Japanese animated series as live action films, and it seems only appropriate that Dragonball is one of the first to find its way to the big screen.

Based on the manga by Akira Toriyama, Dragonball mixes martial arts, Chinese mythology and science-fiction to create an addictive soap opera of epic proportions. While the show never became truly mainstream here in North America, it was certainly popular enough to receive a big budget feature film adaptation. The thing is, it probably should have happened a lot sooner, because Dragonball was at the height of its popularity back in the late ’90s. It also probably shouldn’t have come from a Hollywood studio because they clearly do not have a firm grasp on the source material. The end result is something that is only going to anger fans while completely baffling the uninitiated.

Justin Chatwin stars as Goku, a socially awkward high school student who is being trained as a martial artist by his grandfather (Randall Duk Kim) and told strange stories of aliens who tried to destroy the world 2000 years ago. On his 18th birthday, his grandfather gives him an ancient artifact known as a Dragonball and asks him to keep it safe. Little does he know that the evil Lord Piccolo, who was imprisoned 2000 years ago, has escaped and is now trying to recover all seven Dragonballs in order to grant him the wish of a magical dragon. When Goku returns home from a party one night he finds his house destroyed and his grandfather dying. He must seek the help of a Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat), and collect the Dragonballs using a tracking device invented by his new acquaintance Bulma (Emmy Rossum).

For the most part, Dragonball Evolution is a blur of stale CGI, terrible art design, and painful dialogue. More importantly, it has absolutely no relation to the Dragonball that I’m familiar with. The fact that they chose to give it the hip and meaningless subtitle “Evolution” (because, you know, it sounds cool) speaks volumes about this film.

Their first mistake was setting the movie in something resembling the real world. I guess they wanted to hook viewers with a universal high school story shaping Goku as a nerd who is picked on by bullies and has a crush on a girl who is out of his league. Unfortunately this has been done so many times before that it feels awfully cliched, and to make matters worse, Goku gets revenge on the bullies within the first ten or fifteen minutes, rendering his entire character arc obsolete. Justin Chatwin’s acting is so wooden that all of these early scenes are painful to watch, and he also has an arrogance about him that makes him completely unlikeable. They really needed to cast someone like Shia LaBeouf, Tobey Maguire or heck even Ralph Macchio if they had any hope of working that angle.

Fortunately, high school is left behind pretty quickly… unfortunately, the movie goes on to become an incoherent mess. I’ll be the first to admit that Dragonball is a pretty silly concept on paper, but it certainly deserved better treatment than this. Even with a nonsensical plot, they still could have maintained the spirit of Dragonball if they had captured the long build-ups and the grand scale of the fights. Instead we are lead from one random CG backdrop to another, stopping for a quick, uninspired fight at each step of the way.

If only the movie could have offered up a few decent action sequences, all may have been forgiven. Director James Wong previously did the 2001 Matrix knockoff The One starring Jet Li, but the action in Dragonball Evolution doesn’t even measure up to that. All of the fights are either short choreographed sequences of punches and kicks delivered by actors who are simply going through the motions, or uninteresting gun fights. The fact that the movie is rated PG (not even PG-13!) tells you just how tame the action really is.

As for the final battle, which should have been absolutely epic, it ends up being mired in a cloud of lazy digital effects. It was initially believed that the budget for the movie was $100 million, but recent reports put it closer to the $45 million range, a figure that doesn’t really surprise me. Everything looks and feels cheap, from Piccolo’s ridiculous green make-up to the sparse sets and digital environments. It’s too bad that Stephen Chow couldn’t contribute more in his producer role, since his own movie Kung Fu Hustle is one of the few things that made me think Dragonball could actually work as a live action flick.

In the end, it comes as no surprise that Dragonball Evolution is a terrible movie. It seems like Fox has been trying to hide it from the public for so long now, and the lack of marketing only proves that they had no confidence in it whatsoever. The foreign market is probably what they are most interested in, since they released it overseas a full month earlier than North America. However, this movie is so ill-conceived and so far removed from the source material that I can’t see anyone being satisfied, least of all the original audience for the manga and anime. It’s absolutely dreadful.

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