Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 13th 2014
Dr. Slump: The Movies [Films 1-5]
Arale is a pint-sized robot invented by eccentric scientist Senbei Norimaki. Indestructible, immensely strong, utterly naive and unrelentingly playful, she's an unstoppable force of chaos and destruction. In these five films, she and her equally strange Penguin Village comrades sortie out into the universe for a wide assortment of determinedly non-serious adventures. In Hello! Wonder Land they hunt for demon tears on a mysterious island. In Space Adventure! they rocket off to rescue Senbei's objet d'amour from a space tyrant. In The Great Race Around the World they play bumper-cars in a high-stakes auto race. In The Secret of Nanaba Castle they chase a wish-granting jewel in a fanciful version of the 1920s. And finally, in The City of Dreams, Mechapolis, they go daytripping in a city made entirely of robots. In most cases much destruction ensues.
There's a lot of Dr. Slump out there: TV shows, movies, video games, and, of course, Akira Toriyama's terminally silly manga. It was a bon-a-fide hit for the future DBZ creator, and yet for some reason pretty much none of it—excepting the manga—has ever made it stateside. Collecting the first five of Dr. Slump's cinematic excursions, this set breaks the drought, and if it isn't exactly a paragon of scintillating comedic genius, it is at the very least a big bundle of dumb fun for long-suffering Slump fans.
Dr. Slump is the type of series that lends itself to these kinds of comic filler films. That's because the entire franchise, from Toriyama's original comics to the dual TV series, is comic filler. That's just what Dr. Slump is: random silly adventures, acted out by random silly villagers who live in a random silly village, and delivered with a lot of surreal nonsense humor, only the most basic sense of continuity, and not a whiff of substance or seriousness. It's intended as pure escapism, an effortless, harmless diversion to empty your brain and brighten your day. And, lack of any truly outstanding humor notwithstanding, that's exactly what these films do.
The first, at a mere twenty-five minutes, gives a compact accounting of the basic Slump template. Senbei hears about a foolproof love potion and heads out with Arale, in one of his patented idiotic inventions, to gather the main ingredient. They explore a crazy island full of crazy stuff, bounce around for a while doing wacky things—fighting puddle-dragons, feeding a vampire instant blood, growing Jack-and-the-beanstalk morning glories—before pounding a demon lord and going back to Penguin Village to accidentally spill the potion on a tree.
And that's your Slump film in a nutshell. Some Maguffin arises to get Arale and Senbei and the Penguin Village crew out adventuring, where they bumble around in a new setting, doing what each of them generally does, before everything returns back to normal after a big joke of a showdown.
This isn't to say that each one is exactly the same. Each has its own charms, its own slant on the basic Dr. Slump plot. The second—the set's only feature-length offering—is an epic space adventure, with the requisite spoofs of Gundam and Star Wars and a charmingly old-fashioned sense of adventure. It has soaringly silly space battles, glistening space castles, and lots of planets for Arale and company to explore and take bathroom breaks on. After that is the auto race, which is basically just an excuse to crash a bunch of cars and put arch-villain Dr. Mashirito through the Arale-wringer. The race is followed by a period piece(!) set in 1929, in which Penguin Village regulars play different roles in an Indiana Jones-ish pursuit of a magical stone. It offers the pleasure of seeing familiar faces in new roles, as well as a breathless rush of adventure set-pieces: a Himalayan climb; a chaotic jewel heist; a mid-air assault on an enemy zeppelin; a battle with an evil genie in a magma-laced temple. The last of the films is a Slump-ish riff on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which mostly means mecha mayhem of a particularly hallucinogenic variety. The brawling buildings are a highlight.
What these films offer, visuals-wise, is a reminder of how important it is to be fun to look at. None of these movies is traditionally attractive, but they are a blast simply to behold. Toriyama's characters are round and silly and just full to bursting with smiling, boundless comic energy. Arale, as main character and main draw, is a standout with her rotund little body, oversized glasses, and active purple hair. The way she laughs and runs and raises unwitting hell are all unforgettable. Each film has its own look and its own quality of animation—best in the feature-length space opera and in the later, more technically advanced Indy spoof—but they all share that wacky imagination and love of visual play, dumb sight gags, and sheer stylistic weirdness.
So much of the films' humor and charm is purely visual: angry skyscrapers tearing themselves from the ground in Mechapolis; Arale and Mashirito playing pinball with planets in the space opera; the parade of cheap non-sequiturs on that crazy island; ninja-Akane's beautifully feral smile when she goes a-thieving in the Indy adventure. There are parodies galore (naming them is a pastime unto itself), the pratfalls fly thick, and, of course, there are those smiling curlicues of poo that Arale likes to terrorize everyone with. The human warmth you get with animation of this vintage—pre-CG, when animation was actually drawn by hand—helps, but it's the sheer joy of drawing and animating silly things that raises Slump's visuals above the crowd.
The background music, from DBZ composer Shunsuke Kikuchi, is uniformly nondescript. It just sounds like the music from any kiddie movie/show of the era. Or at least any Dragon Ball movie/show. The theme songs, on the other hand, are memorably silly.
This is your standard stripped-down Eastern Star release. No dub, spare extras, unfussy packaging. The films are spread over two discs—movies one and two on the first, three through five on the second—making for reasonably uncrowded DVDs, which in turn allows for good standard-def video. There are also trailers for all five films, which is a nice inclusion.
This isn't a set with a wide target audience. These are miniature cinematic treats for established Slumpites alone. Dropping into these films unprepared would be like waking up in the middle of someone else's fever dream. They make no concession to neophytes. You have to know why in movie four there are suddenly two Gatchans, and who that sparkly-cute girl is who distracts Tarou while he's chasing Arale and Akane, and more importantly who Gatchan, Tarou, Arale, and Akane are in the first place, to get any kind of enjoyment from this set. The hard truth is that these films retain only a fragment of Toriyama's mad genius for physical comedy. Only once or twice are they truly, honestly funny—Mashirito's glam-rock entrance in Space Adventure comes to mind—meaning that their main attraction is the warm comfort of visiting old friends: the familiar in-jokes, the misty nostalgia, the happy camaraderie. And to enjoy that, well, you have to be old friends.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ Space Adventure! and The Secret of Nanaba Castle; generally lots of fun for established Slump fans.
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