Right off the bat, I miss DBZ. Just so you know.
When the name Dragonball: Evolution was announced, I was a little disappointed. Dragonball did not need a subtitle, let alone one as generic as “evolution” (X-Men: Evolution, Underworld: Evolution, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species 2: Evolution Reloaded). Then, I saw Dragonball. Not only did it need a little clarification as to what it wanted to do, but it should have had a different qualifier. It should have been Dragonball: Contrivance.
DBE, as a character self-consciously passes as dialog, follows the story of freshly 18 year-old Goku. Goku is an abnormal boy who enjoys learning martial arts from his chicken foot-eating grandfather, imagining hot Asian girls who will later be important to the plot eating strawberries in a field of flowers and, it would seem, shopping at American Eagle. He is also a Senior at futuristic Japan/America High, where he learns what causes a solar eclipse. I guess everyone’s just too busy learning kung fu to worry about science.
On this day when Goku becomes a man, his grandfather gives him a magical dragonball. It helps summon a wish-granting dragon, which is probably the best kind of dragon, mostly because if I had one wish, I might wish for a dragon. It’s already out of the way if the dragon is the one granting the wish. So this dragonball, well, evil alien warlord Piccolo wants it. Don’t ask why. He just hates people. So Piccolo and his worthless, but formulaically necessary hench-chick waylay Grandpa Gohan’s house, killing the old man. Don’t worry. Goku isn’t there, as he was conveniently called away from a family tradition of birthday celebration to the hot girl’s party. Her name’s Chi Chi, but don’t worry about that, because all she’s in the story to do is have big, tan boobs. Sorry, Chi Chi.
Goku comes back, meets Bulma, who gives an account of her backstory/motivation so you don’t have to discover it in pesky narrative, and they go find Roshi to help in the quest to find the dragonballs before Piccolo. Desert bandit Yamcha makes an appearance as a decent character.
While I’m talking about characters, I want to point out how odd Roshi’s character feels. Chow Yun-Fat was the only actor in this movie trying to act; Goku’s “mourning” period for his grandfather amounted to, “I heard your grandfather died.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sucks. Anyway, do you have a dragonball and if not may I sleep with you?”
Thus Fat is the only one acting. But it’s an acting in which he chews scenery as if it were one of Grandpa Gohan’s delicious cooked songbirds. You just have to gnaw and gnaw and gnaw on it. Every other actor is just a set piece, filling up space, moving the plot. I'm going to say Fat did a great job and everyone else let him down. They were just so wrapped up in being nebulous and useless.
Which makes them just like everything else. Everything in the movie is so step-by-step and by the numbers, it only functions under the most artificial plot developments. Piccolo needs to get around, so he has an airship. Goku needs to cross lava, so he builds a bridge out of fallen enemies. There needs to be a love subplot or two, so characters who previously hated each other very suddenly and inexplicably fall in lust. And that’s just to get the plot moving. The combat, which you may recall as the point of a kung-fu movie, gets its share of streamlining. Goku can prodigiously bend air, with the incentive of those aforementioned boobs. Characters don’t use real guns when they actually hit people. None of the main martial artists actually have a martial arts battle.
What made Dragonball (Z) so special was that very violence. DBZ didn’t pull punches, unless Cartoon Network censored it. In DBE, all the violence is stylized and adulterated. And I don’t mean wire-fu stylized, although that’s here, too. I’m talking about how all the important combat is enacted through air bending and ki manipulation. All the good punches, all three of them, were covered with particle effects (a great video game term).
In fact, a lot of this movie seems to have come from a video game. There’s a fetch quest (not a quest narrative. Fetch quest.), leveling up system (jugs=exp) and even video game dialog. There is a scene in which Goku is actually told that there are five unlit lamps in a courtyard and for every one he lights, he gets to step closer to those perky Asian hooters. This is at least a motivation, one worth lighting lamps with chi magic or any other means, but it is also what you expect from the tutorial level of a video game. It’s the part of the level that comes right after they tell you to press the jump button to jump.
And while I’m watching this bad fighting game unfold on my screen, I’m wondering things. I’m wondering things like, “why didn’t they just fly the Humvee the whole way?” Or, “I understand Goku needs to gain muscle, but having him carry the gear for an hour isn’t going to do it. And driving at his running speed is very, very slow. Isn’t there a whole ‘time is of the essence’ thing?” I couldn’t help but ask, “if Bulma only knows about one dragonball, why would she build a radar?” “Why is Piccolo using such a worthless hench-chick?” “Why does Piccolo do anything he does?” This is a diminutive list, rest assured. Point being, I was wondering these things because I was bored. I was bored watching what should have been a grab you by the short ‘n’ curlies violence fest. Instead, it was all so tame: no real combat, no on-screen shootings, no overabundance of kicks and Roshi’s prized porn collection became a swimsuit catalog. It was the Dragonball I knew so well, only less.
Which was hard to believe. I went into this expecting little; very little. But I got less. I got less character, less action, less violence. I wanted to be entertained. If only people had really, honestly beaten the living hell out of each other, I would have forgiven everything. Instead, I’m wondering why Goku’s clothes are indestructible over lava, among other things. That was among so many other things...