By Robert Mann.
Last year The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix) attempted to adapt the much beloved 60s anime/manga series Speed Racer as a live action Hollywood blockbuster. The result was a visually stunning film that proved popular with fans of the source material but failed to find appeal amongst mainstream moviegoers, and consequently flopped at the box office. Now, it is the turn of another popular anime/manga series to be given the Hollywood treatment. Based on (or merely inspired by if some reports are anything to go by) the Dragonball franchise,Dragonball Evolution sees director James Wong (The One, Final Destination) take the helm in a move that has proven rather unpopular with the fans. In fact, this is a film that has been criticised constantly since development began with Dragonballpurists none too pleased with the direction that has been taken, particularly in regard to this film only being a very loose adaptation of the source material. As a result, there has been much speculation that this film will be every bit as unsuccessful at the box office as Speed Racer, only without even managing to please the fans. So, with so much negative word of mouth was there ever any chance of this film being any good? Maybe.
On the surface Goku (Justin Chatwin) is just an average teenager who gets bullied frequently and can never get up the courage to speak to the girl he likes Chi Chi (Jamie Chung). But there is far more to him than meets the eye. Living with his Grandpa Gohan (Randall Duk Kim), he is learning ancient fighting techniques and how to master unique magical abilities that he possesses. When his Grandpa is killed, Goku seeks out upon Gohan’s dying request to find the great Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat) and gather all seven Dragonballs, of which he has one, in order to prevent the evil Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) and from succeeding in his desire to use the Dragon Balls to take over the world. And Goku’s quest is to obtain the mystical Dragonballs before Piccolo does. He is joined in his quest by Bulma (Emmy Rossum), who want the Dragonballs for herself to create a new power source, Yamcha (Joon Park), a bandit who is out to serve his own selfish ends, and his dream girl Chi Chi who turns out to be far more than just a pretty face. With time running out and Piccolo’s lethal shape-shifting servant Mai (Eriko Tamura) pursuing them, they must get all the Dragonballs before all is lost.
Right from the start it is clear that Dragonball Evolution is not going to be a stylish or distinctive viewing experience. Visually the film is a very mixed bag, with some good set design that has a snazzy futuristic feel to it and some decent special effects, but visual effects that really show that the film was made on a pretty low budget. There is an almost cartoony look to the visual effects that is certainly fitting considering the film’s inspirations, but, with the exception of the Dragonballs themselves which are quite impressively realized, they fail to dazzle or impress, with them merely getting the job done and nothing more. Speed Racer this film is definitely not. The action sequences are in the same boat with most of the fights being fun but virtually all being too short and lacking the edge that could have made them really thrilling. Many of these sequences feel like wasted opportunities. This isn’t helped by a storyline that feels rushed at times and that gets all the back story over with a rather weak introductory voiceover. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, again serving the purpose, but perhaps everything moves too quickly.
There is also a lack of character development, but at least this doesn’t prevent the characters from being reasonably well rounded with clear motivations and personalities. The acting is hit and miss with no one really delivering convincing performances per se but most of the cast members being very entertaining screen presences. Chow Yun-Fat is the stand-out, being very watchable in a role that really entertains, even if it is hard to shake the feeling that more could have been made of having him in the film. Emmy Rossum, who is generally known for playing sweet roles, proves very good as a tough girl, successfully incorporating some sweetness into the role in a manner that heightens the effectiveness of her performance without making detracting from the tough image of her character. James Marsters plays a very good villain but sadly is severely underused here in a role that requires almost nothing of him, and that anyone could have played really. As for the rest of the cast, most are merely competent and several roles could have been cast much better. This is particularly the case with Justin Chatwin who just doesn’t quite seem right for the lead role.
Sure, he makes for a fairly convincing teenager but he can’t really carry a film of this magnitude. Ultimately, it transpires that some of the criticisms levelled at this film really do carry weight, as it is undoubtedly extremely flawed and it certainly won’t satisfy any of the die-hard Dragonball fans who will likely feel cheated. However, viewed on its own terms, aside from the Dragonball franchise as a whole, it is a film that has entertainment value and it paves the way for a potential sequel that could really make something great out of what is really just an average family action adventure. So, Dragonball Evolution is a lightweight and enjoyable if pretty forgettable film that offers quite a lot to enjoy but no one will leave the cinema feeling completely satisfied.
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