How Bad Is…Dragon Ball Evolution (2009)?
Chow Yun-Fat stars in a live-action Dragon Ball movie fans thought was less than Super.
Dragon Ball is currently seeing a renaissance, with DB: Super doing brisk business on the television, bookshelves, and the big screen. DB: Fighter Z is currently the king of the fighting games scene. Dragon Ball seems to be firing on all cylinders…which means we’re probably due for a misguided Hollywood adaptation any day now.
The first attempt in the US did not go over so well. As the only official live-action version of Dragon Ball, it had a lot to live up to (maybe some day we’ll cover the magnificently bootleg Korean adaptation from 1990 which only exists on VHS!) It certainly had some big stars with the legendary Chow Yun-Fat in a leading role, and cameos from Randal Duk Kim (Matrix Revolutions) and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters). Unfortunately, it also had some big problems with the story, effects, and fidelity to the source material.
Ten years after the film crashed and burned at the box office, we pick through the rubble to find out: How Bad Was It?
Dragon Ball: Evolution (2009)
An alien warlord named Piccolo (James Marsters) nearly destroyed the Earth 2000 years ago, before being sealed away by the planet’s greatest warriors. In the present day, he has been released and seeks seven mystical orbs, the Dragon Balls, in order to become invincible. Son Goku (Justin Chatwin) is a teen with a mysterious past who has been trained from youth to protect the fourth Dragon Ball. When Piccolo destroys his home, he teams up with other adventurers under the guidance of Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat) to gather the Dragon Balls and thwart the forces of evil.
What Went Wrong?
- Not the Same, Not Different Enough. Adapting a long-running, world-famous, well-loved series is perilous. You need to please ardent fans waiting to pick apart anything that strays from canon, weighed against the need to engage casual audiences that don’t know what to expect. The absolute worst way to navigate this minefield is to hang out in the middle of no-man’s land. Dragon Ball Evolution hangs out in the middle of no-man’s land.
There’s just enough of the weird stuff of DB that new people are going to be perplexed: what version of Earth is this? Who are these people/creatures? When is this taking place? How much mysticism and magic is allowed? Then you have enough departures to upset fans: Goku’s origin is heavily messed with, key characters are missing, the timeline is shot all to hell, etc. The final result is too idiosyncratic to hook casuals while not close enough to the source material to satisfy the hardcore.
- It’s All Over the Place. Dragon Ball Evolution has a ton of problems with transitions and tone. It jumps from scene to scene like everyone has a teleporter in their back pocket. At one point, I bent down to grab a beer and came back up to a location and timeline change, wondering what the hell had happened in the 2 seconds I was looking away. The events either dawdle or speed-run, trying to deliver iconic moments while also getting to new characters and locations.
Dragon Ball started out as a goofy kids program that progressed to a mature(ish?) battle manga. There’s a reason it was split into two series for TV, as the tone changes pretty drastically. The film tries to honor both tones while getting neither right. We get levity where it should be somber, and get grim sentiment where it would help to be cheeky.
- Terrible, No Good, Awful CGI. Seriously. This came out in 2009. The same year as Avatar, Terminator Salvation, and the Star Trek reboot. Those had big budgets, sure, but smaller films like The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Zombieland, and District 9 also hit big in 2009, delivering wild visuals with modest budgets. There’s no excuse for how ugly this movie is in many places. If you can’t get the CG right, put a dude in a costume. Don’t try to get by with crap like this:
What Went Right?
- Decent Fight Choreography. For all of the chicanery, Dragon Ball Evolution understands that it’s a kung-fu film at heart and at least delivers on that front. Our first scene of Goku training is a classic wire-fu scene that looks good…so long as you like traditional Chinese kung fu. Goku has plenty of cool fight scenes, and either Chatwin took his training seriously or they got a great stuntman, because the acrobatics are intense.
Side characters get chances to show their stuff, especially Jamie Chung as Chi Chi. It’s crammed in that she’s a badass in story-breaking ways, but at least her fight scenes are cool. Even the iconic beam struggles and super moves are given attention. If they muffed many of the CG elements, they at least made things like the Kamehameha look good.
- Charm Yun-Fat. He’s Chow Yun-Fat. Top three all time actors to come out of Asia, if not the best. He’s got the talent to sell this film, and he seems to be genuinely having a good time here. It’s by no means his best turn as a charming, disreputable rogue, but he makes it work. Not sure anything was going to make the silliness in DB Evolution feel believable, but Yun-Fat’s performance goes a good way towards absolving the worst of it.
- Doesn’t Waste Your Time. I guess the upside to all of the plot jumps is that DBE does not waste your time…well, any more than watching a movie of questionable quality does by definition. The fight scenes are sprinkled in, in a timely fashion, and the exposition dumps are done quickly, if inelegantly. As an action fantasy flick that dropped in what was a dump month of April back in 2009 (it played against The Hannah Montana movie, just for reference) it at least respects your time investment by being generally enjoyable on a visceral level.
How Bad Is It?
Dragon Ball Evolution is a bad movie, but not a terrible one. Hell, Dragon Ball the franchise is not what I would call great, just great at being mindless entertainment. Even as a kid, after seeing the 5th consecutive episode of the same two fighters staring each other down while grunting but not fighting, I knew this franchise was not “good.” It was just amazing when it finally got to showing a world-class throw down. As such, DBE is not such a wild departure as fans claim.
Evolution mangles the story and characters, but does so to make a decently entertaining, fluffy fight film. Sure, certain moments are cringe inducing, and the humor is off, but it quickly gets back to the business of beating ass and throwing fireballs all over the place. I didn’t go into the film expecting Shakespeare’s version of Son Goku’s travels, and as such I wasn’t disappointed. Where the film is actively dreadful, it is dreadful in ways that you can laugh at. All told, it flirts with being a movie so bad it’s good. Not quite…but pretty damn close.