Otaku the world over just love to complain about live-action adaptations of beloved anime series, usually months – if not years – before they come out, determined to hate the final product regardless of what it is. It could be argued that they're not giving some of these projects a fair shake from the get-go; they're hating just to hate, swearing fealty to the original show or manga, convinced Hollywood just can't ever get it right.
Dragonball: Evolution was no exception. Fans decried every scrap of material they could get their hands on, from leaked screencaps to shots of unpainted action figures to the teaser trailers, each time their derisive laughter and scorn growing louder and louder. A tiny handful of people remained cautiously optimistic, praying that 20th Century Fox had managed to distill the essence of the eternally popular, internationally beloved and downright legendary Dragon Ball story into a 90-minute action adventure that, while perhaps not adhering so closely to the exact plot and pacing of the original story, did provide a faithful and entertaining homage that might pave the way for increasingly loyal adaptations down the road.
Here's what happened instead: a bunch of talentless hacks with studio money slapped together a big steaming pile of baffling garbage that fails utterly on every possible level and will please no one at all.
The fans were right.
Here's how it goes: the movie opens with a brief montage about an evil alien named Piccolo and a monkey lookin’ god of destruction named Oozaru who destroyed the earth's population 2000 years ago and were sealed up by an order of monks (or something) who imprisoned Piccolo and I guess sent Oozaru away to space jail or whatever. So now it's 2000 years later and we're introduced to scrappy young Goku, who is training at his grandfather Gohan's ranch-temple-Karate dojo thing out in the country, and has trouble at high school because he's so special and different (why his classmates think he's different or weird, we are never told nor shown). After taking out some bullies (who menacingly call him “Geeko” over and over again, for no discernable reason, especially considering he looks and dresses exactly like them) he catches the eye of ChiChi, a cute girl who knows he's using his Ki power after he opens her stubborn locker for her with his amazing airbending skills. Turns out ChiChi is a fighter too, and she's totally digging on Goku's style. Love interest alert! Who'da thunk?
So then Piccolo – who has somehow broken out of imprisonment, the hows and whys of which are never explained at all - shows up in his big flying office building thing that nobody seems to notice hovering around in the clouds, crushes Gohan's karate ranch using the Power of the Force after he discovers Gohan no longer has the 4-star Dragonball. After all, he gave it to Goku for his 18th birthday, and wouldn't you know it, Goku is at ChiChi's bangin’ high school party at a McMansion in the
San Fernando Valley the futuristic city of Who Cares. So Goku returns to conveniently find Gohan, just about to die, but just alive enough to tell Goku to believe in himself (among a handful of other convenient noble one-liners destined to be repeated later in the film) and that it's his destiny to sniff out all the Dragonballs he can (which, as everyone knows, will grant the ball-handler a wish when collected together), stop Piccolo from destroying the world and do it all in 90 minutes so the kids can make it home in time for Spongebob and the rest of the paying audience can drown their sorrow in a bottle of cheap whiskey while lighting their Dragon Ball manga collections on fire in front of the 20th Century Fox offices.
Then Bulma (sample dialogue: “I'm Bulma Briefs!”) shows up out of nowhere with a Dragonball detector and she and Goku become buddies, teaming up to stop Piccolo and to find Master Roshi (sample dialogue: “Punk, prepare for your clock is going to be cleaned!”), the only person who knows Goku's destiny and can train him not only to battle Piccolo, but to also assist in their quest to gently cup as many Dragonballs as possible. Along the way they run into obnoxious bandit Yamcha (sample dialogue: “Cheese and rice, my nads got scorched!”) who serves no purpose other than to deliver unfunny punchlines and become Bulma's love interest 12 hours after meeting her. There's also Piccolo's unnamed shapeshifting henchwoman, who sometimes shows up long enough to get punched, show off her terrible wig and lose a fight. After about an hour and 15 minutes Piccolo has caressed all 7 Dragonballs (and has had maybe 5 minutes of screentime total and around 4 or 5 lines, not one of which really offers a good solid reason why exactly he wants to destroy the planet), and Goku, now conveniently dressed in his trademark orange Gi and silly ribbed boots, which he managed to change into while his hovering transport jeep was exploding, Bulma, Yamcha and Roshi all show up for the big final battle. Goku turns into an embarrassing CG monkey thing for a while, there's a lot of yelling and whatnot, and then it's over. They hint at a sequel (actual dialogue: "where are the Dragonballs?" "Looks like they're gone again!" "Well, we better go find them!"), and that's about it.
There's a lot wrong with Dragonball: Evolution, but the one huge thing that overrides nearly everything else is that the script is an absolute, unmitigated disaster. It's clear that a metric ton of material was hacked out, but this thing would need another 30 minutes rise from “unforgivably retarded” to “only mostly retarded”. If you walked into this movie cold – with only a cursory knowledge of who Goku is or what the original story is about – your jaw will be agape at what unbelievable horsecrap is unfolding before you. They explain virtually nothing. There is little to no character motivation. Things just sort of happen – it's not difficult to keep up with (once you realize the movie has no internal logic at all and is just checking off character names and plot points) it's just that so little of it feels connected or sensible at all. Stuff happens, but who cares? Earth is basically unrecognizable and looks like the first 5 minutes or so of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, the distant future circa 1992. None of the characters are compelling or interesting at all and they're all caught up in this big nonsense story that feels like it was written in crayon. It'd probably be easy to excuse this trash pile of a script by claiming that the original material was pretty zany too, but while Dragon Ball may have been silly and overblown, it wasn't insultingly stupid and senseless. You can't even use the ‘it's a live-action cartoon!’ excuse – compared to Dragonball: Evolution, your average episode of Chowder or Batman: The Brave and the Bold are shining examples of depth and meaning on par with the work of Dostoyevsky. Kids aren't dumb enough to fall for this.
In terms of production values, nothing there works either. The special effects are all Sci-Fi Original Movie-level quality, and the costume design is questionable to say the least. Hell, even the makeup sucks – Bulma has cosmetics plastered on like a whore in a Ratt video, all heavy rouge and electric blue eyeliner, her hair teased and highlighted to where she'd look much more comfortable writhing around on the hood of a 1987 TransAm than playing a “badass” genius scientist. The film's climactic moment – spoiler alert, it's the Kamehameha – is so outrageously goofy looking and badly executed that you will laugh out loud. It is perhaps the most enjoyable moment in the film, unintentionally so.
It's hard to blame the actors for their across-the-board mediocre performances when they're dealing with material this mind-boggling, but they can't be let off the hook either. Justin Chatwin occasionally delivers his ridiculous dialogue with some measure of quality but most of the film requires him to grimace and flex his neck muscles, which he apparently isn't quite capable of doing in a convincing way; imagine someone doing a bad job at faking "desperate, painful constipation" and you're about there. Emily Rossum spits her lines out like she just can't wait to get rid of them, and nobody can blame her for that, but she's less engaging than your average Power Rangers guest star. The guy playing Yamcha – Joon Park – is just not very good at this. His delivery is godawful, like the guy who's stuck playing the tired ‘surfer dude’ stereotype character in a Japanese roleplaying game from 1997, back when they'd hire convenience store employees and hobos from the local YMCA to do the voiceover work. Chow Yun-Fat does what he can, but even he stumbles over this stuff; the role requires him to behave like a cartoon character and it just comes across as trying way, way too hard.
In the end, it all boils down to one thing: this movie appeals to nobody. It was made for no one. People who aren't familiar with the Dragon Ball story at all will be so flabbergasted by what's happening that they will likely tell everyone they know that it's one of the worst movies they've ever seen. Fans who do know what the general story is will be furious at just how unbelievably badly they screwed this entire thing up. Kids are used to better writing than this in their weekday afternoon cartoons (although you may run into a kid who has never actually seen a movie before, and they might dig it until you show them another movie). It's a clunky, tiresome, badly executed, horribly written pile of shame that deserves no quarter.
In short, it's as bad as the fans said it would be.