A popular Japanese manga series gets a pleasing if paint-by-numbers live-action makeover in “Dragonball Evolution,” which half-heartedly tries to keep the faith for its pubescent male fanbase. The original “Dragonball” graphic novel series appeared in Japan in 1984, and went on to become a worldwide phenomenon with more than 150 million volumes sold and successfully spinning off into countless anime features, TV versions and videogames. Aiming to tap into a ready-made market, this passable Fox release should do solid biz with established fans of all ages and nationalities. Potential appeal to the unacquainted, however, is minimal.
A pre-titles prologue rapidly outlines details of an ancient battle for the soul of planet Earth by Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) and his beastly cohort, Oozaru (Ian Whyte) — a clash the world has blissfully forgotten.
Yarn proper begins 2,000 years later on the 18th birthday of Goku (Justin Chatwin) as he undergoes a daily ritual of martial-arts training with his feisty grandfather, Gohan (Randall Duk Kim). In honor of Goku’s coming of age, Gohan presents the youth with a shining dragonball orb, revealing the heirloom’s history and wish-granting power if united with the six other existing dragonballs.
Goku has other maturing experiences on his mind (though the details are muted for younger auds). Carrying his dragonball for luck, Goku brushes off a birthday dinner with his grandfather to attend a party thrown by comely coed Chi Chi (Jamie Chung), and woos her after dispatching some high school bullies from central casting.
Meanwhile, Gohan is attacked by Lord Piccolo and his sexpot companion, Mai (“Heroes” thesp Eriko), who are on their own mission to collect the seven dragonballs. With his dying breath, Gohan directs his grandson to enlist Master Roshi (Chow Yun-fat) to help him gather the seven balls himself before an impending solar eclipse occurs.
Pic turns into a “Wizard of Oz”-like pilgrimage, with Goku enlisting fellow travelers along the way. But unlike the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, Goku’s companions don’t seek what they need; rather, they learn the superficiality of what they want (fame for Emmy Rossum’s forceful Bulma, wealth for Joon Park’s cocky Yamcha). With Chow providing both Yoda-like wisdom and lusty comic relief, the pic moves toward its climax with an impressive character twist for Goku that will warm the cockles of every young Jungian’s heart.
As helmed by James Wong (the “Final Destination” franchise) “Dragonball Evolution” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but avoids campiness. Efforts to maintain a sexual subtext will feel inappropriate to some, but is consistent with the story’s fairy-tale symbols and structure.
Production seems to have been hastily thrown together, and some scenes appear to have been shot using outmoded rear projection techniques. More care has been taken with the battle scenes; the climactic clash between Piccolo and Goku offers a faithful CGI representation of the ethereal powers as drawn in the original manga. Pic’s ending sets up the inevitable sequel.
Despite his boyish looks, 28-year-old Chatwin feels too old to be a convincing adolescent. Chung also seems a bit too mature for her age, but since her come-on lines about how she likes guys who are “different” are every otaku’s wet dream, target auds are less likely to complain.
Though Chow’s Hollywood roles have been disappointing, especially for fans who remember his days as a trenchcoat-wearing John Woo icon, his English-speaking performances continue to improve. The unshaven, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing martial-arts sage with a fetish for bikini magazines depicted here may rankle with many, but Chow has a hammy good time and encourages auds to do the same.