As a director, James Wong has made some interesting films. He was part of the original X-Files team and cut his teeth on the Chris Carter serial killer series Millennium before heading up such genre favorites as Final Destination and The One. Now, he's been burdened with bringing one of manga's most popular titles and characters to life. Already an incredibly popular anime series, Dragonball is a dense, complex universe consisting of 519 individual chapters and more than 42 volumes. Naturally, any movie made of this material would have to concentrate on a single storyline -- in this case, the "Z" mythos. Alas, anyone hoping that Wong could keep this very Asian entry from being "westernized" by Hollywood was sadly mistaken. Instead of something new and unique, we have just another dull teen action film.
On his 18th birthday, Goku (Justin Chatwin) is given a sacred dragonball by his grandfather. Told that with the other orbs in the set, a single perfect wish will be granted, a tragedy sends our hero out to find Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat), an old family friend who is the key to unlocking the object's secrets. Along the way, Goku picks up Bulma Briefs (Emmy Rossum), who agrees to help him. With Roshi and desert bandit Yamcha (Joon Park) in tow, he prepares to take on alien invader Piccolo (James Marsters), who along with his assistant Mai (Eriko Tamura) is bent on summoning the dragon Shen Long and ruling the Earth. As the impending solar eclipse signals the moment of reckoning, our group must train to overcome centuries of evil and transform into the ultimate fighting force in the universe. Article continues below
At its core, Dragonball Evolution is a quest film: a quest for the fabled title talismans; a quest for one character's true origins; a quest for butt-kicking martial arts fun; a quest for epic entertainment within a live-action anime dynamic; and most importantly, a quest for box office supremacy with what is arguably a very niche, very nerd adaptation. That this film fails to offer even a glimmer of any of these various promises is indicative of what's really wrong here. Dragonball Evolution is a translation done by people who lost the phrase book. It's all focus group sameness and preplanned obsolescence. For those who love the cartoon version, the movie will be an insult. For those lacking the basic clues as to what Dragonball is about, this limp, lifeless offering provides little insight.
Part of the problem is the characterization. Anime, by its very stylized nature, requires individuals who are less natural and a little more over the top. Wong, unfortunately, decides to dress things down with a sense of real world authenticity that does the personnel a grand disservice. Then there are the actors. Everyone from Chatwin to Park is playing their scenes as if Dragonball were one Zucker brother away from a spoof. Things only get serious when the fighting begins. Wong does do a mediocre job capturing the fisticuffs, but some of the last minute pyrotechnics are laugh-out-lousy. The rest of the time there's just too much winking at the audience.
Still, if Wong had shown the least little amount of energy, had he amplified the action with the kind of grace and skill that someone like John Woo or Corey Yuen can bring to a project, we wouldn't care about the flaws. Instead, our director seems heavily invested in the Zack Synder school of sudden slo-mo significance, bringing the camera speed down to give a particular punch or kick some comic panel panache. Purists will have more than enough reasons to revile this effort. Novices who shouldn't know any better definitely will too.