DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION (James Wong, 2009)
Aside from awareness of the DRAGONBALL name, I come to this particular manga/anime universe completely cold. Even as an outsider I can ascertain that DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION suffers the pitfalls all niche properties want to avoid in their bids to go mainstream. It's too bland and convoluted for new viewers to recognize what all the fuss is about and, I suspect, too simplified and disrespectful of the source material for the fan base. Except for the presence of Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, this shoddy live-action film is no different or bigger than the sort of junk kids plop down to watch on TV after school.
After two thousand years of imprisonment the alien Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) somehow frees himself and begins a search for all seven dragonballs. When united the glowing orbs grant the possessor one true wish. Seeing as Piccolo is an evil warrior, his heart's desire is more along the lines of world annihilation than a pony or a bicycle.
Standing in Piccolo's way is eighteen-year-old orphan Goku (Justin Chatwin). When his Grandpa Gohan (Randall Duk Kim) is murdered by one of Piccolo's minions, Goku follows the old man's dying wish for him to seek Master Roshi (Chow) for help in continuing his martial arts training and finding the dragonballs. If Goku collects them first, he can use their power to defeat the warlord. Also along to assist with the quest are fame-seeking scientist Bulma (Emmy Rossum), who has developed a dragonball locator, and thief Yamcha (Joon Park).
Fantasy films with complicated backstories can get bogged down in mythological minutiae, so it is to DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION'S partial credit that following the origin mumbo jumbo isn't oppressive for newcomers. Unfortunately, the streamlining that makes the film coherent for the uninitiated also removes all traces of personality and depth. This is a boilerplate epic with single trait characters whose plights are hard to get caught up in because Goku and crew come directly from the cardboard cutout factory.
DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION'S basic story is as old as time, so this sturdy construct needs compelling heroes and villains to distinguish itself from others of this ilk. The characters don't evolve but merely complete tasks on a to-do list. For director James Wong and screenwriter Ben Ramsey the least explanation of character accomplishments and motivations is best.
The ungainly dialogue can be easily imagined coming out of cartoon mouths, especially with these actors' voices. Chow emerges unscathed from this dud because some mischief flickers in his eyes throughout the schematic nonsense. Little of DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION is funny, but at least his performance acknowledges the film for what it is: a quick, inexpensive cash-in on a cult series.
The cheap effects and bargain backlot action wouldn't have wowed anyone twenty years ago, let alone today, proving that going from animation to live-action isn't an advancement for DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION.