Before anyone contacts me to complain about my lack of “Dragonball” knowledge, let me clarify right off the bat: you’re right. I’m not intimately involved with the fantasy world of “Dragonball” on any casual level, from the Japanese manga created by Akira Toriyama to the popular animated television series that followed. I believe my only real exposure to this franchise was found at various sci-fi conventions, where every other cosplay fanatic siphoned inspiration from the world of “Dragonball.”
While it absolutely helps to have a prior understanding of the particulars before viewing this feature film, it doesn’t take a doctorate to spot that director James Wong has fumbled and ruthlessly condensed an expansive intergalactic narrative, making “Dragonball” a tedious blur of vigorous special effects, deflated slapstick, and dizzying exposition.
Bullied at high school and unable to control his special powers, spiky haired Goku (Justin Chatwin, “War of the Worlds”) is gifted a mystical Dragonball for his 18th birthday by his grandfather to strengthen his character. A glowing orb of energy that, when paired with six other similar balls, can grant the owner their ultimate wish, the Dragonballs have been scattered throughout the land.
Forced into the hunt for the rest of the Dragonballs with cohort Bulma (Emmy Rossum, “The Phantom of the Opera”), Goku seeks the assistance of Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat, hamming it up big time) to tighten his fight skills, preparing for the ultimate showdown with dark overlord Piccolo (James Marsters, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), who’s also after the Dragonballs to help him rule the universe. With humanity’s future at stake, Goku must uncover the secrets of his past to find the courage to fight for his future.
“Dragonball” reminded me in many ways of the beloved fantasy films of the 1980s, only minus a crucial amount of charm and a Corey. Wong (“Final Destination,” “The One”) directs the action as though he’s making a big-budget cartoon, which is something of a strange notion when one processes that “Dragonball” already scored massive cultural awareness as a cartoon.
A live-action version of this material seems redundant, and Wong’s fatigued filmmaking doesn’t exactly provide inspired visual fireworks. It’s a flat take on wild narrative twists involving a shape-shifting villainess, magic balls, and a blistering finishing move called “The Kamehameha.” With those ingredients, perhaps the animated realm is where the material should remain.
Newcomers to the “Dragonball” world might find themselves a bit bewildered by the whole shebang, though the casting efforts help to predigest the mayhem. It’s a sound ensemble effort, with Chow Yun-Fat doing his damndest to add some fizz to the movie as the ass-grab-happy Roshi, and Rossum is surprisingly acceptable as the gun-toting warrior Bulma, even trapped under an ornate wig.
Chatwin overplays the gee-whiz Goku wonder (the character is 18, not 8), but the lines presented to the actor by loathsome screenwriter Ben Ramsey (“The Big Hit”) already leave much to be desired. “Dragonball” is a mercifully short film, so color me impressed than anyone in the cast could find the screentime to rise above the visual clutter to make an impression.
The final reel of “Dragonball” is riddled with oddities I hope will make sense to somebody out there. The fantastical gist of the franchise is easy to read, but the nuances were lost on me; I imagine a better filmmaker might’ve found the proper balance between tribute and invitation, and Wong is certainly not at that level just yet.
As someone on the outside, I found “Dragonball” to be a brightly colored chore to watch, giving itself too little time to realize too many ideas. Perhaps die-hard fans will be able to peel away some highlights, but I fear even the faithful will find themselves wondering just what happened to their beloved “Dragonball” after watching how Hollywood has plundered the property.