Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD - Season 2 Uncut Set
Tournaments and training temporarily behind him, intrepid young monkey boy Goku sets his one-track mind to finding his grandfather's four-star dragon ball. Balls that grant wishes attract an unsavory element, so Goku has his work cut out for him. Primary among his competitors is the Red Ribbon army, an organization that, despite its arts-and-craftsy name, is thoroughly ruthless in its pursuit of the glassy little orbs. As Goku chews his way through the organization he faces generals, robots, master thieves, booby-trapped pirate caves, and ultimately one mean mother of a mercenary. If that sounds like a lot for one pint-sized nature boy to deal with, fear not, Goku has reliable (and not-so-reliable) allies in the likes of Bulma, Kuririn, and Turtle Hermit Roshi, plus he can be a pretty mean mother himself when the situation calls.
The Red Ribbon army arc finds Dragon Ball at its peak, at a pleasant mean between the frivolity of early Dragon Ball and the ponderous solemnity of Dragon Ball Z. Here the series is light and funny, yet serious enough that it doesn't feel insubstantial. It may be little more than a diversion, but it's an eminently enjoyable one.
The seriousness comes from the Red Ribbon army itself. While composed of incompetent dogs and equally incompetent people (and tigers, and walruses, and...), they're a genuinely nasty bunch. Nasty enough that they sometimes feel distinctly out of place in Dragon Ball's dippy fantasy world. They enslave, beat and kill locals unfortunate enough to live near a dragon ball, and their tactics for dealing with Goku grow increasingly ugly and extreme as his threat to their organization grows. It's the first time Goku has faced real bad guys—as opposed to Team Rocket-esque wannabes like Emperor Pilaf—and the tone of the series reflects it. Naturally, this being children's anime (and don't fool yourself, it is), the Red Ribbon meanies always get their just desserts, but unlike previous villains, their just desserts sometimes include outright death, an extremity of punishment that once again feels out of place.
Never fear, though. Akira Toriyama isn't about to abandon his beloved gags, and increasing and occasionally incongruous seriousness aside, Dragon Ball remains a very funny series. This is the kind of show that has no qualms about sticking a power pole up a ninja's butt and then having him jump around on all fours yelping as Goku points and laughs "Now you've got a tail too!" Vulgar, yes, but hilarious too. The whole ninja fight in general is an exercise in Looney Tunes insanity, and the show has a grand old time yukking it up with Master Roshi's perversion (his adventures with Bulma's human-shrinking device being a highlight) and the further antics of its expansive cast. Even the Red Ribbon army comes in for its share of comic drubbing. It is, after all, led by a red-headed, cigar-chomping midget.
Luckily neither raised stakes nor gags are given free enough rein to interfere with the series' straightforward sense of adventure. There is plenty of exploring to be had, dangers to be overcome, and discoveries to be made, and as always there's a deceptively simple pleasure to watching Goku doing it all. Dragon Ball's world, with its mushroom-shaped mountains and bubble-houses, is weird, but a lot of fun both to look at and to explore. Goku, and by proxy we, take in plenty of odd wildlife and bizarre geology as he zips about on his nimbus cloud, and there're an abundance of strange new places to explore and Indiana Jones booby traps to avoid wherever he goes. Not to mention fights. Lots of fights. Against Red Ribbon army lackeys and high mucky-mucks of course, but also against terminator rip-offs, gelatinous monsters, and giant octopi (which he subsequently roasts and eats).
Throughout it all the series' look leaks retro charm. The traditional animation looks great. Even its freeze-frame stills and looped sequences have a certain nostalgic appeal. It's no great shakes technically speaking, but the very fact that it doesn't care if it looks cheap frees it up to lively and active. Toriyama's wonderfully humorous art is in full evidence (no one looks anything less than entirely ridiculous at any given time), and he has a knack for inventive and often hilarious action that translates well into animation. It simply looks and acts like it's a lot of fun, and, consequently, is.
It sounds like it's having fun too. No attempt is made to disguise the series' intent to provide slightly goofy entertainment for kids. The score is silly and the sound design pointedly cartoony: collisions and explosions don't just sound unrealistic, they're also overlaid with Batman-style Bam!s and Boom!s, and Shunsuke Kikuchi's score would be right at home in a (non-opera-oriented) Chuck Jones short.
Funimation has a reputation for freewheeling English adaptations. This is why. Funimation's dub isn't a translation of the original so much as it is, to borrow their own terminology, a complete reversioning. The liberties taken with the original script are quite amazing. Sections of dialogue are removed and added, jokes are inserted and excised, and entire conversations are warped until they bear little resemblance to the originals. It's enough to send sub purists running for the hills. Which is their loss. For while it may be loose, Funimation's dub is also great fun; full of clever banter and off-the-cuff jokes. And it isn't as unfaithful as a description of its wildly divergent script would lead you to believe. The casting and performances, for instance, are largely dead-on, and while it may tinker with the meaning, it never violates the purpose of the dialogue. When it does make substantial artistic alterations, they are often beneficial. Stephanie Nadolny's terminally naive and good-humored Goku, for one, clearly outclasses her temperamental Japanese counterpart. And the addition of a slew of hammy accents complements Toriyama's heterogeneous fantasy world such that it feels incomplete without them (plus they're hilarious). The dub does fall down on occasion; particularly when trying to defuse some of Toriyama's more ribald humor. Kuririn, when asked why he's suspiciously sniffing the diamond that Bulma hid in her crotch, says that he's checking to see if it's glass. Um, yeah. Nevertheless, it's an exemplary—if less than reverent—work.
Unless you count the marathon feature—which, really, you should—there are no extras of great interest to be had here.
There are a few episodes later in the set where the series briefly resurrects Penguin Village, the setting of Akira Toriyama's truly unhinged gag manga Dr. Slump, into which it temporarily introduces one of the Red Ribbon army's nastier villains. The resultant combination of insane weirdness and classic ruthless villainy says more about the path Toriyama's art—and, subsequently, the shows based off of it—have taken than any words could. While tougher than before, at this point that path has yet to take Dragon Ball down the darker and less interesting byways it will eventually explore (and then wear out). Here it is in balance: an action-packed tale told with rare humor and something even rarer—a genuine sense of adventure.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Great fun; great dub; good mix of classic adventure and serious danger.
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