Dragon Ball Z is in an interesting place right now. For many fans, the story had been functionally over for a long time. Akira Toriyama's manga had concluded and we were content to believe that the most important events of the Dragon Ball world were behind us. But now with advent of movies like DBZ: Battle of Gods, the franchise is seeing a resurgence, continuing the adventures of Goku and friends with Toriyama in a notable writer's position.
Now we've reached the second installment of this new wave of movies with Resurrection ‘F’, the story of Frieza's return from the world of the dead. Goku and Vegeta are off on some distant planet training with Whis, the assistant to the last film's antagonist, Beerus. Meanwhile, back home on earth, their friends and family are distraught to discover Frieza alive and well with an army of soldiers at his disposal, looking to pick a fight with the Saiyans who brought his initial demise.
One of my favorite details comes at the beginning of the movie when Frieza is first brought back to life in the form of the tiny little cubes that Trunks had cut him into all those years ago. It's an incredibly surreal moment that really sticks out for how weird and creepy it is. Once the pieces are put back into some kind of rejuvenation device, we have ourselves a living breathing Frieza complete with his own Maximum the Hormone theme song (I'm kind of a sucker for insert songs in movies like this.)
From there we're led into the meat and potatoes of the movie. The most common story beat in the whole series has always hinged on keeping Goku busy and away from the main villain in order to give all the weaker, more interesting characters the responsibility of carrying the actual plot. This is a theme I've wholly embraced in the past, but I did find it testing my patience this time around. I like the series’ side characters as much as the next guy, but I think back to the TV show where their roles in these instances would often be a lot more plot driven, so I don't really find what I'm seeing here especially satisfying.
The action in this movie is okay. Good chunks of the runtime features TV quality animation (and some really ugly CGI inserts.) The supporting cast's big fight with Frieza's army has it's fair share of decent moments, but a lot of the good jokes and action beats often last a second too long for many of them to land properly. Chances are good that one of your personal favorites will get a tiny “hell yeah!” moment, but it's clear that everything before Goku and Vegeta's reentrance is supposed to be simple a warm-up, and that takes a lot of the wind out of their victories. It feels like the story is throwing these characters a bone much more than it's relying on them, which makes the fact that we spend the first two-thirds of the movie with them a little disconcerting.
Once Goku and Vegeta do get around to showing up, however, we're treated to a lot of the big spectacle action that Battle of Gods’ Goku vs. Beerus fight taught us to expect. A lot of it looks neat, but I think it's easy to get the expectation that there's going to be some kind of big ticketselling moments within these final minutes and I'm not sure that's really the case. The realization that we're reuniting Goku, Vegeta and Frieza feels ripe for some kind of massive catharsis, but this movie's story is simply not that ambitious.
That lack of ambition creates several disappointing problems with the whole picture: Mainly that Resurrection ‘F’ has some of the most surprisingly low stakes I've ever seen in a movie about a bad guy trying to blow the earth up. This is not a movie where we find ourselves asking how the heroes can possibly win, but rather if the villain can even put up a decent fight at all. Fans made jokes when Frieza was announced as the antagonist of this movie, asking how such an old foe could ever match the strength of modern-day Goku and Vegeta. Unfortunately, even with Frieza's new golden form and the extra training he went through in preparation for this fight, the movie does not make a very strong case for it.
Whenever Frieza manages to best a character, or one of the heroes gasp at how much of a threat he has become, it feels like a stretch. It's not convincing. But let's even say that I can accept that and roll with the fabricated drama for what it is. The movie still continues to undermine it's own suspense around every turn. We're frequently reminded that the heroes still have some extra Senzu Beans for healing, just in case, and even if by some chance Golden Frieza was enough to barely overcome Goku, he still has Vegeta, Beerus and Whis watching him from the sidelines (plus one more spoiler-y plot device that incapsulates this problem more completely than any of those other things.) This movie does not want you to believe there's a chance of defeat and yet the characters keep telling us that there is.
Dragon Ball Z has never been an especially deep series, but I stand by my belief it has always been good at drama. It's simple and straightforward, but you are constantly barraged with questions about what's going to change between points A and B. Part of the appeal of these new movies being led by Akira Toriyama is that we can tap into some of that stuff for theatrical experiences as opposed to the usual Toei filler-y fluff. However, Resurrection ‘F’ is exactly the kind of movie that Toei would have made all on their own.
In hindsight, I've vastly underestimated how much there is to admire in Battle of Gods. The most surprising thing about it being that it actually had something thoughtful to say about the nature of Dragon Ball's story and what it means for it to keep moving forward. It's so strange to have these two movies back to back, especially since they both exist primarily to stroke a hungry fan base and both feature ultimately non-threatening antagonists. But the difference in how engaging these two movies are is pretty vast. Battle of Gods did those things with purpose, to create a dramatic arc and make us believe that the magic of the franchise could exist beyond the manga and TV series. Resurrection ‘F’ has a lot, lot less in its sights.
The last note I feel is important to mention is the Funimation dub. Between Dragon Ball Z Kai and the recent movies, the years of experience this cast has with their characters has continued to pay off big time. The marriage of the old-school nostalgic cast, modern standards of dubbing and a clear love and respect for the source material has allowed them to pull off things with their voices (i.e. screaming) that would simply be impossible with any other actors in any other series. Though there isn't much in this movie for these actors to really show their stuff like they have done in recent years, the chops are still definitely there.
On top of that, I've always adored the casting of Chris Ayres as Frieza, a near perfect alternative to the Japanese seiyuu, but I'm thinking maybe in this instance the direction was a little mis-fit. Ayres’ brand of childish pompousness is a lot less threatening in a story where Frieza isn't in a position of power from the get-go. Ryusei Nakao's slightly more adult tone works a little better in this instance.
Ultimately, I'm a little sad at how inconsequential this movie ends up being. Battle of Gods was a great example of how the series’ story can continue to grow and change through these new movies, but Resurrection ‘F’ is not interested in any of those things. It's okay for DBZ to be shallow and full of contrived, fan-pleasing ideas, but it's still possible to do it in a way that's honestly engaging and I'm not really sure that's what we got here.