Dragonball Evolution: The Retro FAQ

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Goku holds and stares at an orange Dragon Ball with four swirling stars inside it.

Screenshot: 20th Century

Look. Let’s be honest with each other. I know you don’t have any questions, let alone frequent ones, about 2009’s Dragonball Evolution. Critically and commercially scorned, the movie based loosely (ever-so-loosely) on Akira Toriyama’s best-selling manga and anime of (kind of) the same name has been largely forgotten by the world. This made me wonder, has the passage of time made the movie any better? Short answer: No. Am I punching down by doing a FAQ review of it? Yes, but sometimes that’s exactly what the fighters of Dragon Ball have to do to win.

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Why is this movie so bad?

Asking the tough questions out of the gate, I see. So you’re probably more aware of Dragon Ball Z than Dragon Ball, right? The one with spiky-haired guys who fly around shooting energy blasts at each other and sometimes their hair turns different colors?

I am. But what’s the difference between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z?

Dragon Ball was the original manga and anime series. It starred a much younger, kid version of the main character, Son Goku, and it started much more as a comedy series based on the Chinese legend of the Monkey King and Journey to the West. As the series evolved, it become more about superhero-esque action. While the manga always retained the name “Dragon Ball,” once it fully embraced fighting instead of laughs, Toei Animation renamed the series Dragon Ball Z to differentiate it from the goofy first part of the story.

Weird. But I guess that means Dragon Ball Z is more popular than Dragon Ball, right?

Absolutely. The DBZ franchise has made billions and billions of dollars across the world. Over 300 million volumes of the manga have been sold. The anime was a ratings juggernaut in dozens of countries. There are still new manga, anime, video games, toys, and more coming out to this day.

So why would someone make a live-action movie of Dragon Ball and not Dragon Ball Z?

To a certain degree, I get it. If you enter the story where DBZ begins, there’re a lot of confusing characters, relationships, and ideas that aren’t explained because the original Japanese series assumed you had read/watched Dragon Ball, so it is in some ways easier to start at the beginning. But in other ways, Dragon Ball Z was the immensely popular, significantly more lucrative series that people around the world loved far, far more than Dragon Ball, and why studios were interested in making a live-action adaptation in the first place. It’s bananas. Besides, DBZ’s many, many fans certainly would have known what was going on. Or there could have been a prologue that told non-fans the basics—it couldn’t have been any more complicated than the giant prologue that’s in Evolution.

Image for article titled Dragonball Evolution: The Retro FAQ

Screenshot: 20th Century

Although I stated this was a bad movie, for the purposes of this FAQ I have not seen it in order to ask this question: What is Dragonball Evolution about?

It’s sure as hell not about Dragon Ball.

What do you mean?

Evolution is almost unrecognizable next to its source material. Other than character names, the premise of the Dragon Balls, and a few odds and ends, Evolution changed almost everything and almost all of it for the worse. There’s very little that DBZ or Dragon Ball fans recognized in the slightest.

How so?

First, let me tell you about that basic premise. There are seven Dragon Balls, each with a corresponding number of stars within them. If all seven orbs are brought together, the giant dragon Shenron will appear and grant the holder a wish.

Okay, I can roll with that.

In Evolution, Goku (Justin Chatwin) is a talented martial artist/dorky high school student who bullies call “Geeko,” despite the fact this does not rhyme with “Goku.” He has a crush on his classmate Chichi (Jamie Chung). On his 18th birthday, Goku’s grandfather Gohan (Randall Duk Kim) gives him the 4-star Dragon Ball. Alas, Piccolo (James Marsters), an alien who once nearly conquered the world with his disciple Oozaru, has escaped his prison and has begun looking for the Dragon Balls in order to try again. Please note Evolution never once bothers to explain how Piccolo escaped.

That’s not a strong start.

It certainly is not. Also, Piccolo knows exactly where the Dragon Balls are, except when he doesn’t.

What do you mean?

He somehow knows there’s a Ball in a small Asian village, and he knows there’s one at Goku and Gohan’s house, but somehow, he doesn’t know that Goku took it to school that day. Anyway, Piccolo smashes their house and kills Gohan, who tells Goku to find Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat) with his dying words. That’s when Dragon Ball main character Bulma (Emmy Rossum) rolls up.

Image for article titled Dragonball Evolution: The Retro FAQ

Screenshot: 20th Century

What’s Bulma’s deal?

She’s looking for the Dragon Balls to make a clean source of renewable energy in some unknown way, because she certainly doesn’t know about the wish. With help from Bulma’s Dragon Ball tracker, she and Goku realize that Master Roshi has a Dragon Ball, so they travel together to see him. I want to point out that despite all the massive changes the movie makes to make the story more generic and mainstream, it inexplicably stays true to Bulma’s ridiculous last name, which is Briefs.

Hmm. Why Briefs?

Because creator Akira Toriyama loved silly names when he created Dragon Ball and found perviness funny, including making the character of Master Roshi a perv in the manga, which is also true in Evolution but to a much smaller degree. He’s mainly weird, and Chow Yun-Fat seems to be the only one having a good time. At any rate, Roshi explains the Piccolo situation, and they all set out to find the Dragon Balls to stop him.

You know, I just peeked at the Dragon Ball wiki, and this doesn’t seem to be that far off from the manga other than the high school thing. It’s truncated, sure, but it would have to be for a movie, right?

Absolutely, especially when the movie is 76 minutes long. 

Oh my goodness.

Also, once the group sets out on their journey, that’s when things start falling to pieces. Worldwide martial arts tournaments are a major part of Dragon Ball and DBZ; in Evolution, there’s a tournament that we see for a hot minute that Goku doesn’t fight in. There’s a bandit named Yamcha who traps them in a giant hole for the day so Master Roshi can dole out some more exposition, and when that’s over Master Roshi jumps out of the hole that night, meaning there’s no reason for them to have been trapped there. But then they go back in the hole to find a Dragon Ball that is very coincidentally located in the caves that connect to the hole, something that they don’t bother to do while they were waiting in the hole. And after Goku traverses a dangerous lava pit to get to the Dragon Ball, Piccolo’s henchwoman Mai (Eriko Tamura) just walks around a corner to fight them for it. And when the fight is over, the rest of Goku’s team appears past the lava pit they previously could not cross.

Image for article titled Dragonball Evolution: The Retro FAQ

Screenshot: 20th Century

Well, admittedly, none of that is great. But surely there’s something good about the final battle?

There is not, and it begins with Roshi’s hole exposition. He says the upcoming Blood Moon will bring back Piccolo’s disciple Oozaru, something the film immediately conflates with Piccolo acquiring all seven Dragon Balls to add a ticking clock to the narrative, but never explains why. There’s no reason given as to why Piccolo has to use the Dragon Balls during the Blood Moon (which is somehow also an eclipse?), and the Oozaru situation has nothing to do with the Dragon Balls whatsoever.

What is the Oozaru situation?

It is, unsurprisingly, a mess. Here’s the situation in the manga: During a full moon, Goku transforms into a very giant, rampaging, ape-like being called an Oozaru. It’s sort of a mix of the Monkey King legend and werewolves, and the only way to turn him back is to get him out of the moonlight or cut off Goku’s monkey tail. Goku in Oozaru mode shows up a bit in Dragon Ball and early DBZ, when it’s revealed that Goku’s an alien called a Saiyan, but disappeared as a concept almost immediately after that.

That’s weird.

It is certainly weird, but it’s consistent within the rules it sets up. In Evolution, Goku turns into a Bigfoot-sized, rampaging ape-man when whatever the Blood Moon arrives, revealing he’s Piccolo’s “disciple” Oozaru. How an unreasoning were-ape can be considered a disciple of an alien that doesn’t even have an ethos is beyond me. And then Goku kills Master Roshi and decides to stop being Oozaru.

Image for article titled Dragonball Evolution: The Retro FAQ

Screenshot: 20th Century

How do—wait a second. You said Piccolo and Oozaru nearly conquered the planet thousands of years ago, right?

I did indeed, although the hazy montage of this war somehow includes footage of medieval knights.

Does this mean Goku is thousands of years old?

Apparently. But also Gohan found him as a baby 18 or so years ago.

Wait, what? How?

All the movie bothers to say is that he was sent to Earth as a baby to destroy the Earth when he grew up, Superman-style. People love launching babies into space.

But what people? Who sent him, if Piccolo was trapped? Was he a baby the first time, or did he turn into a baby afterward? Was Goku a baby for thousands of years, or was there a different Oozaru?

If Dragonball Evolution offered even a hint of an answer to these questions, I would tell you. But here’s another question for you: How did Oozaru help Piccolo do anything if he only turned into a giant ape every Blood Moon, which can’t occur more often than every 18 years because Goku had clearly never turned into an Oozaru since he landed?

Oh my god.

Actually, here are several more questions the movie can’t be bothered to answer:

  • Why include a scene of Goku knocking a bug into Gohan’s mouth when no one acknowledges it, including Gohan?
  • Why is Goku surprised that Master Roshi knew his grandfather when his grandfather sent him to Roshi?
  • How does Mai transform into a Chichi clone by stealing some of her blood?
  • Why does Piccolo scream “Dragon! The Test of Seven has been fulfilled!” when all he did was find the Dragon Balls, including one that was literally sitting on the ground?
  • And how did this dialogue make it all the way to the final cut of the film? Emphasis mine:

Chichi: Here’s where everyone comes to train for the big tournament in Toisan. That’s what I, uh, wanted to tell you at the party before you suddenly took off. I heard about your grandfather’s accident. I’m so sorry. The house collapsed?

Goku: Uh, yeah, something like that. Hey, what was it you wanted to tell me?

Chichi: Nobody at home knows this, but I’m a fighter, too.

Image for article titled Dragonball Evolution: The Retro FAQ

Screenshot: 20th Century

Please tell me at least the fighting is good.

It’s… fine. Actually, there’s a fun scene where four bullies try to murder Goku, but he dodges all their blows, causing them to knock each other out and destroy their car. But the final battle between Goku and Piccolo is just throwing low-budget CG effects at each other.

You have to be the only person in the world who has thought this much about Dragonball Evolution in the last decade.

I’m sure I am! It doesn’t feel good!

Agreed, so let’s wrap this up with a question that has been driving me crazy since this stupid FAQ started. Why have you been calling the original series Dragon Ball when the movie is called Dragonball Evolution?

Oh, that’s because Dragon Ball is the correct spelling. It’s the name of the manga, the anime, and the items.

You’re goddamned telling me that Dragonball Evolution didn’t even get the name of the property right?!

I am, although I will say it’s a common mistake that many people make, including myself on several occasions. But then again, I didn’t spend more than a year and $30 million trying to make a live-action adaptation of one of the world’s most popular anime series.

(chair clatters to floor, door slams)

(runing to window, shouting outside) Hey, did I forget to mention Justin Chatwin’s hair?!

Image for article titled Dragonball Evolution: The Retro FAQ

Screenshot: 20th Century


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

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