by HELEN GEIB
Dragonball Evolution is a kid-friendly fantasy adventure about a young man named Goku who discovers he holds the key to saving the earth from annihilation at the hands of a vengeful alien called Piccolo. I enjoyed the martial arts fantasy elements and lead performances by Justin Chatwin and Chow Yun-Fat. The coming-of-age storyline and positive message about being true to yourself and fulfilling your responsibilities even under difficult circumstances make it a solid recommendation for the family audience.
The film is loosely adapted from a long-running Japanese manga series. Episodes from the anime television series based on the manga have been widely broadcast in the U.S., making “Dragonball” one of the better known manga/anime franchises in this country. However, the film does not assume any familiarity with the source material, and the connection is readily apparent only in the faux-Buddhist mysticism and the large number– exceptionally so for a Hollywood film- of Asian and Asian-American actors in the principal cast.
Chow is by far the biggest name in the cast, Asian or otherwise. He plays Master Roshi, a martial arts adept who becomes Goku’s mentor and one of his companions in the quest to find the seven dragonballs before Piccolo can get his claws on them. Roshi is largely a comedic character, an outsized personality with a penchant for wearing loud shirts; amusing in himself, the comedy angle also helps to enliven the expected training and “here’s what happened last time Piccolo showed up on earth” scenes. Chow handles the part with ease.
Chatwin, who plays Goku, is a real find (he’s previously done some TV and a few movies I haven’t seen). He has screen presence and easily manages the physical demands of the role, while his performance finds an appealing, self-deprecating humor in teenage awkwardness. Perhaps most impressive, he is sympathetic and convincing even when saying “I will avenge him” and like fantasy story dialogue.
Emmy Rossum and Joon Park play Bulma and Yamcha, who become Goku’s other companions on his dragonball hunting journey. Randall Duk Kim, last heard as the voice of Oogway in Kung Fu Panda, plays Goku’s grandfather and first master Gohan. Jamie Chung plays competitive martial arts fighter Chi Chi, Goku’s pretty classmate and love interest. James Marsters, almost unrecognizable under green face paint and prosthetics, is Piccolo and Japanese actress Eriko is Piccolo’s right hand woman. Ernie Hudson makes a brief appearance as, bizarrely, a high-ranking Buddhist monk.
Aside from Goku, the characters are underwritten. Bulma and Yamcha are severely underwritten (Wait, he’s on the team now? How did that happen?). The others, including Piccolo whose story and motivations remain obscure, I would have liked to have gotten to know a bit better. Another ten minutes or so of dialogue interspersed through the film at strategic points would have earned it at least another half star.
The world of Dragonball Evolution is not this world with special powers. It is a fantasy world that bears some resemblance to this one. I do appreciate fantasy executed with Hollywood production values: the movie looks really good, especially the sets and backgrounds, and the special effects and creature effects are typically accomplished. The interestingly varied locations include a peaceful rural home, futuristic cityscape, barren desert landscape with monstrous rock formations, and an underground cavern surrounding a pool of molten lava. The many humorous touches in the set designs and props are also welcome.
2 1/2 stars