Coming off of the heels of why I think Alita: Battle Angel was a good example of a live action adaptation of an animated property, I’d like to take a look at the flip side. The worst live action adaptation of an animated property.
When it comes to terrible live action adaptations of an anime or cartoon, there area few. Two of the bigger examples are The Last Airbender and Dragon Ball Evolution. The former suffered from poor casting choices and trying to cram a season’s worth of content into a one hundred and three minute movie (among other things). The latter suffered with some of the same issues and then some.
Neither are good movies, but I’d say that, between the two, Dragon Ball Evolution is the worst of the two. The Last Airbender is a bad movie by all means, but there are one or two things I can say make it a touch better than Evolution. Though not by much.
The Story Itself
The Last Airbender may have been a terrible adaptation, but at least it tried to follow the story. Turning the first season into a single movie a little over an hour and a half was going to come off as rushed and clunky. But at least an effort was made to follow the story.
Dragon Ball: Evolution does not have that luxury. Yes, it had things that were key to Dragon Ball, like most the characters, the titular Dragon Balls and Demon King Piccolo as an antagonist, but other than than it has nothing else going for it.
Instead of it being a story about a young boy going on adventures with a colorful cast of characters and settings, Dragon Ball: Evolution is much more akin to a highschool chosen one type story where they have to find magical items before the villains do. Yes, part of Dragon Ball has them finding the Dragon Balls before the villain(s), but it wasn’t just that.
Yes, part of Dragon Ball has them finding the Dragon Balls before the villain(s), but it wasn’t just that. One moment Goku and the gang will be hunting for the Dragon Balls, the next, their participating in a martial arts tournament or taking down villains because they have to. The series had several storylines to follow. None of which were highschool dramas.
It also nixed the fact that Goku has no formal education. He was no high school student, just a kid raised in the forest by his (adopted) grandfather who loves to fight. Dragon Ball also has roots in Sun Wukong and Journey to the West, mainly with Goku’s conception.
Not Knowing the Material
The worst thing someone can do when adapting any kind of media (i.e. books, comics, video games, and animation) into a movie is not knowing the material. And that’s what happened with Dragon Ball: Evolution. Going back to The Last Airbender for a moment, while a terrible adaptation, M. Night Shyamalan at least went over the material enough to know what had to be done. It may have came out terribly, but at least it tried followed the source material for the most part (needing a fire source for Firebenders is certainly a questionable choice when they didn’t in the show).
Dragon Ball: Evolution does not have that luxury. According to some sources, director James Wang had not seen a single episode of the anime or read any of the manga. That is an issue. By not familiarizing himself with the series, it certainly hindered this movie.
Had the director looked into it, he would have realized a few things. Like how the Oozaru (Great Ape) was not something controlled by Piccolo, rather a Saiyan gene involving a tail and a full moon (or it just being an uncontrolled, unexplained transformation in DB since Saiyans weren’t introduced until DBZ). Or that Mai was not a shapeshifting ally of Piccolo, but one of Pilaf’s head henchmen. The fact that Goku was eleven/twelve years old when the series started is another thing worth noting.
Cutting Corners with the Source Material
In the same vein as the previous point, the movie cut the series down to bare basis. Dragon Balls that can grant wishes? Check. A big bad that causes the heroes trouble? Check. Having any of the charm? No.
It doesn’t follow any of the arcs from Dragon Ball for this movie. They cold have used any. They could have gone with the 22nd World Tournament, which could have been the gateway to a Demon King Piccolo centered sequel. They could have done a movie with King Piccolo and in the second half or sequel lead up to Piccolo. They could have done anything with the Red Ribbon Army.
They point is, Dragon Ball: Evolution only took some of the basics of Dragon Ball and went with a whole different story. While Dragon Ball has had it’s fair share of movies, they do usually tie in with the series. Whether it be set around the same time as an arc/saga or feels like a what if tale in it. If Dragon Ball Evolution wanted to do its own story and kept a lot of the charm and story of the series, it could have.
At the very least, the Last Airbender tried to do something with the source material. Yes, a lot got cut for the of time, but at least it tried. One of the worst things it did, in terms of effects was the Firebenders needing a source (much like Waterbenders), when that was never the case. And yes, casting choices (even if you just know about this movie, you’ll probably know about the who race controversy it has) could have been better. However, the fault this story had with cutting content and characters, is that they tried to shovel in a twenty episode season into such a short amount of time (and well, the direction was kind of weird).
Basically, a good chunk of The Last Airbender’s problems could have been fixed had it been a serialized show, as Could Dragon Ball Evolution. However, Dragon Ball could, in theory, be easy to adapt into maybe a trilogy (and maybe Z getting it’s own as well), but none of what made the show great made it to the movie. A lot of it being due to the content they cut.
Back to Dragon Ball: Evolution, the characters don’t really feel like themselves. Or are very watered down. Roshi and Grandpa Gohan were probably the closest to their original counterparts. Which is about as much of a complement as I can give.
Grampa Gohan isn’t in here for a long time and it got his general role down. Though him being a super strict mentor wasn’t one thing he was known for. Training Goku, yes, but both enjoyed it. Though it’s also worth mentioning that Grampa Gohan was dead before the series even started, because the one time Goku disobeyed his ‘don’t look at the full moon’ rule, Goku turned into an Oozaru (Great Ape) and killed him without having control over it or the knowledge that he was the one who killed him. And on a side note, the Four Star Dragon Ball was significant to both Goku and Grandpa Gohan. All seven are important, of course, but the Four Star was Gramdpa Gohan and Goku’s treasured trinket. So much so that Gohan (Goku’s son) wore it on his hat when it was introduced.
Roshi, still felt like Roshi, if not as womanizing (which part of me can understand). He was still a great martial artist and close friend to Grandpa Gohan and acted as a mentor to Goku. If I had to say which character I felt was the best, it would probably be Roshi. He wasn’t perfect, but he was the one I liked more than the others. Plus I think Chow Yun-Fat did a pretty solid job of Roshi (wouldn’t mind seeing him return as Roshi if they ever gave Dragon Ball another shot).
Those two may be exceptions to a degree, but I can’t say the same for the others. Bulma is technologically savvy, but lacks the witty dramatics of her manga and anime self. Yamcha starts off being the jovial womanizer/love interest fro Bulma, but forgets that he was cautious/afraid to approach women. Mai’s whole shtick is nothing like her original counterpart, and while Piccolo passes as a decent enough villain, he feels a bit generic. Goku doesn’t really feel like Goku, which I’ll get into in a little bit.
Cutting characters isn’t exactly a new thing. A number of Disney movies based on fairytales have cut concepts and characters (examples of cut characters includding Belle’s siblings and Aladdin’s mother). Lord of the Rings also cut the character Tom Bombadil. However, while cases could be made for those characters, with Disney having a different plan for their adaptations of fairytales or Peter Jackson felt Bombadil didn’t feel necessary, the same might not be said about Dragon Ball: Evolution.
Cutting minor characters is one thing. Cutting certain villains, like Pilaf and the Red Ribbon Army, in favor of Demon King Picoolo is fine. Cutting characters like Puar, Oolong, Chaotzu, Mr. Popo and Launch? I won’t complain, but they were fun additions to the roster. Cutting the Ox King, a.k.a. Chichi’s father? An odd choice, but considering Chi Chi’s kind of there, water under the bridge at this point I suppose. Cutting three big characters is not. And that’s what Dragon Ball: Evolution did. The three characters that were cut were Tien, Kami and Krillin. All of who are iconic and important characters in Dragon Ball.
I wasn’t able to find a lot of information on why these three characters were cut, but they were characters that should not have been cut to begin with. My theory is that they were trying to cut back on how many characters they wanted. And by cutting back on characters they took out these two notable ones.
Tien was a rival of Goku’s and later an ally. He would also befriend Chaotzu (who was also notably absent from the movie) and they both were founding members of the Z Force (Goku and friends/family). While Chaotzu may not have had the biggest impact when compared to Tien, he was one of the first major characters killed in the series alongside Krillin and Master Roshi. Now, I do enjoy Tien and Chaotzu as much as the next person, both sadly losing relevance in Dragon Ball Z onward, I was less bothered about them not being in it (one could only imagine how that would turn out).
I’m more bothered by the fact that Krillin was not included. Anyone familiar with Dragon Ball knows that Goku and Krillin were the best of friends since childhood. They trained together, grew up together, and went on multiple adventures together. Before Dragon Ball Z, Krillin was a strong mainstay (he still is, but with characters like Vegeta and Piccolo joining the ranks, he certainly has lost some momentum), and had an impact on the series. And while Krillin would certainly get just as botched as the others, one would figure he would be included. Because, even in the more high school chosen one adventure they went with, one would think Goku wouldn’t be totally friendless.
And here we are with a critique that certainly has its merit. The main character is someone we are supposed to enjoy or relate to or critique if possible. A main character can make or break a movie regardless of whether they are an original character or based on a character from whatever source the movie is using.
Goku in Dragon Ball: Evolution is a character that is terrible as both a standalone character and as a reflection of the character he’s based on. While I won’t completely fault the actor for it, it’s safe to say how he isn’t a good protagonist in an acting sense or story sense.
Going back to The Last Airbender for a moment, while Aang certainly felt odd when compared to Avatar: the Last Airbender (technically, the same could be said for all the characters, but I’m focusing on Aang), he still felt like Aang. A questionable adaptation for Aang, but Aang none the less. The elements of his character were there to a degree, just not the execution.
Which is a lot more than what I can say about Goku. Goku fails on two fronts: as a teen protagonist and as an adaptation of the original character.
As a (Teen) Lead
Teen/High School Dramas can be a hit or miss genre. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s bad. The same could be said for teen characters (despite teen characters not always being played by teens). What makes it work is a few elements: the story and the characters. Both are enjoyable when done right, but if one had to suffer, however, I would rather have good characters in a bad story rather than a good story with bad characters. Because a good story can suffer from bad characters, but a bad story can be made bearable with good characters.
As a teen protagonist, Goku isn’t exactly good. Obviously with some of his abilities, Goku was never going to be an entirely relatable character (one can relate to his personality yes, just not being a Saiyan), but here, I think they tried and failed to make him relatable. He kind of comes off as your typical teenaged protagonist. The kid who’s picked on, wants to be a normal teen, and has a crush on one of his classmates. If anything he kind of comes off as whiny and uncharismatic. Aang, who also doesn’t come off as a charming young protagonist much either, I feel wasn’t as bad. I feel it was more of a portrayal thing with Aang.
As a Character Based on a Preexisting Character
Speaking of portrayal, let’s talk about how poorly adapted Evolution’s Goku is. Now, I won’t say Aang wasn’t all there. An attempt may have been made, but it didn’t feel like Aang outside of some basics. They at least tried to get an essence of the character, even if the execution wasn’t ideal. Goku, on the other hand, has no such grace.
The first problem is the fact they made a character, who started out as a twelve year old without a single year of formal education, into a high school setting. if there’s one thing Goku’s known for is being survival educated, not academically educated. He’s smart enough to know what he needs to survive, and isn’t all muscle, but he’s not going to be winning any academic awards or getting a doctrine.
In Dragon Ball Evolution, they have him acting like he’s just your run of the mill school kid with normal school kid woes. Goku was never like that. He was just a kid who was raised in the wilderness, learned to live on his own after his grandfather died, made friends, and went on adventures. He was a kid who was kind hearted, a touch naïve, but could be serious when he needed to be, and grew up to be a kind hearted and determined fighter.
Goku also is not someone who was that romantic in Dragon Ball. He loves his family of course, but Goku is about as romantic as a wilted flower. In evolution, he has a crush on Chi Chi, which wasn’t something he exhibited until the end of Dragon Ball. Goku never showed a romantic interest until they met again in the World Martial Arts Tournament as teens because love and marriage were so foreign to him up until that point.
Lastly, is Goku’s annoyance with training. Even if you’ve only heard of Dragon Ball Z, I’m certain you would be aware that it is an action series. Fighting in an action whatever (tv show, video game, etc) is a given. And if there’s one thing Goku loves more than anything (and yes, he loves his family and friends in his own Goku way) is fighting strong opponents.
Fighting is in his blood and he would never complain about fighting. During conflicts, he knows he has to, and he may get angry if the antagonist does something to do so (for example, Freiza killing Krillin prompting Goku to go Super Saiyan).
In conclusion, I would say that Dragon Ball Evolution is not only a bad adaptation, but worse than the Last Airbender. Both are based on other properties, but Evolution failed to look into the series much, if at all. They both cut corners, but while Last Airbender did so to fit a season’s worth of story into an hour and forty-three minutes, but Evolution cherry picked what was put it in it. By doing so, it only got a few of the basic elements, but pitched any potential content or characters that wouldn’t fit into this high school coming of age fantasy. The Last Airbender attempted to keep enough elements to make sure people knew that Aang was Aang, Evolution tossed out key personality traits, had no formal education, and loved to fight and replaced them with an uninteresting and cliché teen protagonist.