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Dragonball Evolution
Another adaptation for fans to complain about.
Dragonball Evolution
Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum Star in "Dragonball Evolution."
OPENING WEEKEND: $21,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $52,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

December 22nd, 2008: A young boy named Goku seeks out upon his grandfather's dying request to find the great Master Roshi and gather all seven Dragon Balls (of which he has one) in order to prevent Piccolo from succeeding in his desire to use the Dragon Balls to take over the world.

What to Expect: Okay, in the interests of journalistic integrity, I'll be very up front about this: I don't know much about manga and anime. I mean, I'm aware of its existence. I know what it is. I can rattle off a few dozen titles, mostly by virtue of having worked four years in a bookstore that stocked the stuff. But I've never cracked the spine of a manga, and the only anime of which I've partaken are Miyazaki films. One thing I do know is that it's pretty damn huge. Not just in the fountainhead of Japan, but increasingly so in the Western world. During those four years I worked at that bookstore, the manga section grew from four shelves to ten tall cases, a growth factor of about 2000%. And it ain't all just tweenies reading the stuff, either. It runs the gamut.

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Even that being the case, it's still a pretty small, niche market to which we can apply Lori's Inverse Law of Fan Community Craziness, which states that the smaller the fan community, the greater is their reading on the scale of Batshit Insanity, and the more rabidly they clutch their canon to their collective bosoms. A fan community that's large and spread-out, say the community of fans of police procedural dramas like "CSI," doesn't get the chance to coalesce into self-perpetuating fannishness and slavish obsession over details. Lest you think I cast my aspersions from afar, I know whereof I speak. I am a longtime Trekkie and was a Doctor Who fan ages before it became cool again. The upshot of this is that the smaller and more rabid the fanbase, the harder they are to please. Comic book fans have long been held up as the gold standard of Hard-to-Please Fans, but then along came anime/manga fans and just reset the whole scale.

So. "Dragonball." Another thing I know about manga and anime is that if you try to quickly summarize the plotlines of any long-running manga series, it will sound like the ravings of an insane person. You want to know what it's about? Does it really matter? There's a young hero, Goku, who must save the world and realize his inner badass in order to do so, and there are these Dragonball thingies that grant wishes or some such and there's a wise mentor and some hot young women in tight outfits. Blah blah blah fishcakes. Normally I'm a big proponent of substance over style, but in this particular genre of films, what the film is about is often less important than how it's presented. The character design, effects, color palette and a lot of other production details really make the difference between a film that looks cool and cutting-edge and a film that just looks like amateur hour.

This film is being presented by 20th Century Fox. It's a venerable old studio whose logo and theme music kind of stir you up. It's a studio that brought us such great films as the Star Wars trilogy, Butch & Sundance, Titanic, The French Connection, and the list goes on and on. Guess what? Fox is circling the drain, and fast. The mood over there is grim. They are not going to break a billion dollars in ticket sales for 2008 films, and that's bad. In the last five years they have made less than ten films of financial and cultural significance. Heads are going to start rolling, and their slate of upcoming films reads like the last clawings of desperate execs. Not only are they producing this film, but also the upcoming "Street Fighter" film, with which I kept getting "Dragonball" mixed up in my head. They're pretty much counting on James Cameron's long-awaited "Avatar" to save the studio, which makes me scratch my head that they spent $100 million on "Dragonball."

That being said, it might be very difficult to gauge this film's box-office potential. This may be one of those films that performs weakly here but cleans up overseas. The Dragonball series, in its many print and screen incarnations, is hugely popular worldwide, especially in Japan and South America, and these ticket sales might save the film's finances.

Notice that I'm not too super psyched about its chances to make money here. As I said, I'm not a fan, but there are a lot of people out there who are, and most of them are, in a word, pissed. As I cruise around the forums and message boards, I'm seeing about 90% vitriol. When the first international trailer was released, such a torrent of hate was unleashed that ScreenRant.com had to shut down its message boards to dam the waters. The main complaint seems to be that the filmmakers have largely disregarded the complex mythology of the manga and sort of cobbled a new one together out of spare parts. Now, if I were a fan, that might piss me off too, but standing here on the outside I can sympathize. The convoluted storylines of Dragonball would confound a Tolkien scholar, and there's no way they could be easily used in a film. It might be easier to nearly start from scratch and create a more self-contained backstory for the characters. You know, that's what the makers of the "Bourne" series did. The Bourne novels bear only the slightest resemblance to the films, because they're far too complex to be translated, so the storylines of the Bourne films are created nearly from whole cloth, and you don't hear anybody complaining. Then again, Bourne fans aren't anime/manga fans.

I try not to rely too much on trailers when I write these previews, but since everybody and their brother was talking (read: ranting) about the Dragonball trailer, I thought I'd better have a look. And I have to admit...I thought it was kind of cool. I mean, I've seen better, but it was hardly the steaming pile of flaming crud I'd been led to expect. In fact, it kind of made me want to see the movie, which was surprising. Hey, I love a fun kung-fu movie.

Speaking of kung-fu movies, what might save this one is its producer, Stephen Chow. Recognize the name? You should. He made two hilarious kung-fu satire films, "Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung Fu Hustle," both of which are energetic funhouse rides that both glorify and ridicule the conventions of Hong Kong martial-arts films. To direct, Chow selected James Wong, whose name you may recall as a writer/director of "The X-Files," one of the men most directly responsible for that show's greatness. Wong has experience with martial arts, having directed the Jet Li vanity piece "The One," which may or may not be a point in his favor.

So let's talk casting. With such a beloved commodity and such a bevy of characters known to the fanbase, that's always a huge issue. As Goku, Wong cast Justin Chatwin, who I must admit I've kind of had a crush on since he was in the pilot episode of "Weeds" (and then never appeared again, which broke my heart). You may know him more as Tom Cruise's teenage son in "War of the Worlds." One might wonder why a Caucasian man was cast in this Japanese role, but it makes a kind of sense...manga and anime have a long, long history of making their characters looks Caucasian for some reason. That doesn't seem to be much of an issue with the fans; much more of an issue was how Goku's signature spiky hairstyle would be portrayed. Emmy Rossum is nearly unrecognizable in tight leather and a stylized ponytail, Chow Yun-Fat (another man I wouldn't kick out of bed for eating crackers) is Goku's mentor, and the fabulous James Marsters (Spike from "Buffy") stars as the musically-named villain Lord Piccolo, although sadly he appears to be covered in green latex so we can't appreciate his lovely cheekbones. Dang. There does seem to be a bounty of attractive young women in tight clothing doing martial arts to please the fanboys, though. Someone over at Casting isn't stupid.

Let's face it, the producers couldn't win for losing with the casting. No matter who they cast, the fanbase would probably not be happy. I'm a longtime Harry Potter fan, I know what I'm talking about. What's important here is how the actors will be slotted in against this backdrop of stylized kung-fu and effects which are attempting to evoke the physics-defying action of a manga and an anime. Then there's the storyline. Now, as I said, I don't know much about Dragonball, but I do know that the protagonist, Goku, is actually a member of an alien race who are trying to destroy Earth, but he got amnesia and threw in with the puny humans to fight various dastardlies. Looks like they're going with the old Campbellian "chosen one" Luke/Neo/Harry mold for Goku in this adaptation. It's a bit of the easy way out. I can't substantiate this with much hard evidence, but word around the campfire is that the actual film bears little resemblance to the original script penned by "The Big Hit" writer Ben Ramsey, and that Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama was exiled from the set because he wanted more creative control and was clashing with Wong. That doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.

I've been given to understand that the original Dragonball series was funny, tongue-in-cheek, and not overly focused on fights. That's certainly not the sense one gets from the trailer. It's as if these characters and the rough outline of their story have been yanked free, then pushed and pulled into a standard Hollywood formula where they may not fit, and into which the fans don't want to see them forced. The non sequitur addition of the word "Evolution" to the film's title didn't help. Is that supposed to entice people in? It just makes it sound like an X-Men movie.

I don't know. I'm really on the fence with this one. The trailer makes the film look like it could be campy fun, like "Mortal Kombat." Fox has put a pretty big price tag on this film, it's clear they're hoping for some serious return on their investment, and I just don't know if they're going to get it. I suspect that even fans who profess to despite the trailer and the advance publicity will go anyway. I mean, let's be honest. The studio doesn't much care if you hate a movie after you've seen it and they have your ticket money.

In Conclusion: A beloved manga series, an impossible-to-adapt-faithfully source material, and the manga's creator hates your guts. Sounds like a recipe for a fantastic, well-received film! Yes, I provide sarcasm free of charge. The success of this film can't depend solely on the fanboys (and fangirls), but it's hard to imagine it doing well without their support, and that support is rapidly vanishing. I doubt the trailer is interesting enough to draw in viewers without familiarity with the film, but it's very possible this film will do well internationally and make back its budget, thus giving Fox a much-needed infusion of cash. But if I were them, I'd start watching James Cameron like a hawk.

Similar Titles: The One, The Forbidden Kingdom, Street Fighter - Collector's Edition
April 10th, 2009 (wide)
July 28th, 2009 (DVD)

20th Century Fox

James Wong

Justin Chatwin, James Marsters, Jamie Chung, Emmy Rossum, Eriko Tamura, Joon Park, Chow Yun-Fat, Texas Battle, Randall Duk Kim, Ernie Hudson

Total: 299 vote(s).

Action & Adventure, Fantasy

Click here to view site

Rated PG for intense sequences of action/violence and brief mild language.

84 min





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