Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Live Action Dragonball Debacle

From left to right: Bulma (Emmy Rossum), Mai (Eriko Tamura), Chi Chi (Jamie Chung), Goku (Justin Chatwin), and Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat).

You don't want to stare, but you just can't look away. That pretty much sums up the overall feelings surrounding the new live action Dragonball film, coming April 10, 2009. Despite the lack of a trailer or even an official synopsis, there are already too many things wrong with the adaptation to even count. Retelling the second half of the original adventure series, Dragonball, teenage Goku discovers his heritage and seeks out the seven legendary Dragonballs before the evil Lord Piccolo can use them. With the help of Bulma, Chi Chi, Master Roshi, and a cast of others, he must train and defeat Piccolo before he takes over the world.

The production crew at least sounds decent, with director James Wong and producer Stephen Chow taking the reins. Wong, known for his work on The X-Files and Final Destination, rewrote the script after the movie was officially greenlit in 2007. Chow's major US releases, Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle have a comedic action tone and a bevy of special effects that wouldn't be out of place in Dragonball. As for the actual casting, the choices are questionable at best. War of the Worlds actor Justin Chatwin plays Goku, which doesn't fit at all given the character's very Asian persona. Buffy star James Marsters will play Lord Piccolo, better known as the original King Piccolo in the anime and manga. Chow Yun-Fat, closely associated with filmmaker John Woo and best known in the US for his role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, plays mentor as Master Roshi. Outside of Lord Piccolo and Master Roshi, the rest of the cast seems to be a mixed bag. Phantom of the Opera actress Emmy Rossum and Real World cast member Jamie Chung play Bulma and Chi Chi, respectively, which could turn out decently if written and portrayed correctly. But with original characters being created and liberties being taken (more on that below), there isn't too much hope for a credible and faithful version.

One of the most important parts of an adaptation is being faithful to the source material. While Dragonball Z received a poor reputation of slow development and lacking substance, the original Dragonball series had a fun, adventurous tone with action, humor, and a varied cast of characters. The direction the movie is headed doesn't look so good. First of all, it is completely disregarding Goku's adventures as a child and starts Goku as a teenager. This is somewhat understandable, seeing as it would be more difficult to tell the entire Dragonball story in a single film. But one of the biggest flaws already evident is that Goku is a high school student. The proper time period can be debated, but his character and personality cannot. He has always been known as young, naive, and uneducated, since he was raised in the wilderness by his surrogate grandfather, Gohan. His inquisitive nature, naivety, misunderstandings, and lack of "book smarts" has been chronicled throughtout his childhood and even through adulthood. With original characters being created to be his high school classmates, it looks like the story will take a more present-day tone while still keeping the futuristic nature of the civilization.

They seem to be taking liberties with the story, which can be seen in the female-dominated movie poster. Good friend Bulma and love interest Chi Chi can be seen heavily featured, with minor slapstick villain, Mai repurposed to be Piccolo's ally. The glaring omission of major characters and fighters such as Krillin, Tien Shinhan, and Chiaotzu are immediately noticeable, although Yamcha manages to make it in. Attempting for a more serious tone, the anthropomorphic creatures and comedic relief have been omitted well. The character design choices are also very questionable. The majority of this is due to odd casting, but the hair and facial features of Goku, Bulma, and Master Roshi are much different. While there's only so much they could fit into one movie, it looks like they are placing their focus in accordance for a stereotypical hollywood movie rather than trying to be faithful to the source material.

It may be too early to write off Dragonball, but it's not looking so good. General expectations are mixed, with some voicing that it doesn't look or feel like the source material. With mostly just the casting list, a rough plot line, and leaked set pictures to go on, perhaps things will turn around in post-production. Even if you're not a fan, it's going to be really hard to look away come April 2009.

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reversEngineer,  July 13, 2008 at 2:37 PM  

We all knew how painful this was going to be once the first images were released. Dragon Ball is the quintessentially classic yet campy action anime we've all come to know and love. Its transition into live-action will be a bastardization of the ages.

Redskyy July 13, 2008 at 7:16 PM  

I couldn't have put it any more eloquently or precise.

I want to be optimistic about this, since there's at least a little good in this with producer Stephen Chow and perhaps director James Wong. No matte the outcome, it'll certainly be a spectacle to behold.

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