James Wong's DragonBall: Evolution premiered last week in Asia. It's been a long road for that film. Not only was it delayed for a full year, but the not-inconsiderable amount of leaked information -- from merchandising promotionals to a camcorder job of the film being dropped on youtube yesterday -- has drawn a great deal of ire from fans on the English language web. Even the reviews coming from Asian web sites have been mostly negative, as have the comments showing up on IMDb. One web article (in Chinese, sorry) actually asserts that some audiences in China fealt "deeply hurt" by how the movie was handled. How is it that emotions could get so heated over a movie like this?
On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss these reactions as yet more fanboyish prattle; however, the frustration of fans of the manga and anime has simmered for a long time, and has now transformed into full-blown resentment. That resentment manifests itself in everything from ineffectual online petitions to very serious discussions of race and the portrayal of ethnicity in American film. This isn't just about a bad adaptation of a mediocre (if well-liked and broadly appreciated) anime series. This disappointment required decades to build, and it isn't just anime fans that have gotten screwed over.
As for the movie itself, it will eventually debut in American theaters, fifty minutes longer according to fandango.com. The eighty-nine minute cut that's been released in Asia is the subject of this review. Most of my criticisms can not be assuaged by lengthening the film.
Strictly as a movie -- not as an adaptation, nor as an adherent to genre convention -- DragonBall: Evolution is a decidedly bad film. The film is rushed. Dialogue is traded in short spurts without any meaningful dramatic arc. Scene after scene rushes by but rarely do the characters display any sort of energy or even any real personality. The two-dimensional, cartoon characters of the anime and manga do not translate well in live action, but even if they could, the script here gives them so little in the way of motivation and intent for why they act the way they do that it's downright infuriating. Why is it that Goku is picked on? He doesn't look or dress so differently from the popular kids in school. Why is Goku so goofy? Presumably he's been going to school his whole life -- or at least there's no given reason to assume he hasn't -- so why is socializing a problem beyond his Grandpa not letting him go to parties? Why does he not fight when attacked at the party? One might assume because Grandpa Gohan told him not to, but he's already breaking one of Gohan's rules by running off. Why is one more important to follow than the other?
The script gives no indication, and while actors can often do things with inflection and body language to show the intentions behind some of these, the cast either wasn't given enough direction from Wong, or they were just as baffled as I am. Joon Park's Yamcha, for instance, has character traits that make little sense within the context of the film. A desert bandit talking with a cliche surfer-dude accent makes no real sense. Joon Park is not an actor by trade (he's a Korean musician) and while he deserves recognition for getting the "surfer" accent down pretty well, neither he nor the script gives much of a reason for it. His performance is one note, as is Chow Yun-Fat's, as is Emmy Rossum, who appears to have totally given up throughout the movie. Again, I blame the screen writer. The laziest excuse for an unconventional or "strong" female character is the now ubiquitous "tough chick." DragonBall: Evolution gives us three, two of them martial arts fighting dragon ladies to boot. These are characters drawn in gesture, populating a film that rushes to arrive at nowhere in particular.
As an adaptation of Akira Toriyama's original story, the film fares even worse. Dragon Ball started as a silly re-imagining of Wu Cheng'En's The Journey to the West before Toriyama got tired of that and turned it into a never ending saga of martial arts fights, alien invasions and ever-escalating power levels. Throughout, the character of Goku stayed more or less the same. He is an innocent, over powered, and thoroughly obsessed with making himself the best fighter he possibly can.
James Wong and screenwriter Ben Ramsey (likely at the behest of the studio producing, 20th Century Fox) have tried to shoehorn what was never an American styled super-hero story into the generic structure of the recent film adaptations of such. Here we have a teenage Goku who is concerned with girls more so than with fighting and making himself better at fighting. It worked in the manga because of his origins. The Goku of the manga lives in the wilderness alone after the death of his grandpa before Bulma comes along and takes him with her to find the dragon balls. Living away from society made him innocent, it made him unaware of how freakish his physical abilities really were, and the fact that his name, appearance and accoutrement were references to Sun WuKong of Chinese Literature hinted to readers that his personality would be fittingly monkey-boyish.
Not only does the film make Goku smug and generally obnoxious as a character, it removes an essential part of his motivation for his adventures -- the constant desire to be a better martial artist. Roshi's interest in Goku has changed from being impressed by his skill to a desperate need for his assistance in saving the world, creating a motivating force behind their master-student relationship that was never intended to be there. For some reason, Yamcha doesn't know martial arts, in spite of an early rivalry with Goku being a plot point in the original. Even the setting has been changed to some sort of indistinct, boring, pseudo-futuristic and multi-ethnic North America. It's a far cry from the fantasy China with smatterings of science fiction technology and anachronistic cultures that Toriyama basically pulled from his back end. At least his had a bit of personality to it. Krillin is not in this film. Aside from the names of the characters and the searching for seven dragon balls that will grant wishes, this is not similar to Dragon Ball.
And finally, as a martial arts flick, DragonBall: Evolution is a monumental failure. From the opening scene of Goku fighting Gohan, it is evident that no real creativity or care went into designing the fight sequences as they apply to the plot and characters. Goofy exposition is given to the concept of "ki," but it never really defines nor makes of it an interesting plot point. It serves only to allow for silly Karate Kid plattitudes and sets up the "kamehameha." The actual fight scenes are dreadful. That boring slow motion effect that's used for every dodge and every moment that contact is made had worn out its welcome years ago -- and every action scene finds a use for it. A pressbook claimed that softer, internal styles of wushu were used for choreographing Chow Yun-Fat's scenes, but I see no real evidence of this. Fight scenes are also surprisingly short. Do not expect to see long takes, creative filming and editing, intricate choreography in which the actors move in coordination with each other, or creative juxtaposing of styles that used to make Hong Kong action and martial arts films the most exciting films of their type. The editing is awful, the camera work obscures the movement of the bodies (likely to hide doubling) and the special effects are perfunctory.
Perhaps the worst part is that any philosophy of martial arts is drowned by the incessant need to move to the next set piece. James Wong actually attempted to show characters reflected in their own use of martial arts with his other martial arts film, The One. One has to wonder why he didn't bother to actually have a training sequence or a depiction of master-student dynamic between Goku and Roshi in this film. If it had added actual character to the film, it could have only helped. As a result, it doesn't even meet the requirements of passable genre entertainment (and it's nowhere near the level of entertaining camp like Taylor Wong' s similarly energetic though far superior 1983 film, Buddha's Palm, or Andrew Lau's 1998 big-hair-and-frilly-costume camp classic The Storm Riders).
Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama captured the attention of kids all over the world with its hyper-violent (by the standards of the time) tale of martial artists fighting to become better than each other as entire worlds were exploded underneath their godlike battles. For some reason, that was turned into a generic, lazy story of a high school kid who has to save the world because he's special and has wise old Asian guys to give him advice along the way. DragonBall: Evolution is cynical in its attempt to milk the franchise. It panders to the lowest rung with its type-casting, it's indulgence in the stereotypes and perpetuation of the fetishistic portrayal of East Asian culture (and women). It exploits fans expecting something that they will not get, like quality.
In spite of Dragon Ball being a hugely popular IP that's still selling merchandise because of the nostalgia felt by millions of people to whom it appeared a unique and exotic import, somebody at Fox thought that it would work better if the unique and exotic elements were stripped away, replaced by the common, the mundane, and the vacuous. They also gave it a $30-something million budget and put a group of mostly competent craftsmen behind the camera to make it work. The result is a compromise that leaves nobody happy.
To think Chow Yun-Fat gave up the fantastic Red Cliff for this.
As a matter of fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins (Chan Jun-Leung, supposedly 1989) and the live action, South Korean Dragon Ball (Wang Ryong, supposedly 1990) are just as good, and probably many times more entertaining.That's my awesome MS Paint skills at work there.