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Down Low on LetterBoxd: Dragonball Evolution 

Welcome to the first edition of “Down Low on LetterBoxd,” a review column where I will be reviewing the lowest-rated movies on Letterboxd, a social movie review platform. For my first edition, I am reviewing the 2009 adaptation of the popular long-running anime “Dragonball.” The movie, directed by James Wong, who also produced “Final Destination,” stars actors from the hit-TV show “Shameless,” Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum. With an embarrassingly low score of 0.9 stars and accusations of white-washing, this film is infamous among anime fans  and mainstream movie-goers alike. Some reviewers referred to the film as “anything but Dragon Ball,” or “the nihilistic stuff of Hollywood,” at points referring to the film’s lack of Asian representation in its casting.

Before I get into my personal opinions on the film, I’d be remiss not to address the whitewashing that is this film’s main sin. “Dragonball Evolution” is an adaptation of an anime series, so the characters, although not explicitly stated, are supposed to be represented as Southeast Asian or “Asian-coded.” The anime is based on the seminal Chinese novel, “Journey to the West” and is inappropriately casted with white actors to play characters that are so ingrained and important to Chinese culture. What’s worse is that the only appropriately casted actors are either love interests or mentors, with a plot drenched in fetishization and anti-Asian racism. 

The movie starts with a poorly explained exposition of the lore. The film has a god-like creature named Piccolo who tries to take over the world but is stopped by a bunch of mystics. It’ll barely be relevant later on; you just need to know that Piccolo is evil and powerful. Our main character, the white Goku, is established with a technically impressive but uninspiring fight scene with his mentor/grandfather. 

Goku, in this movie, is more like Spiderman than the legendary Monkey King that he’s based on. He goes to high school, has a slightly requited crush on the popular girl and his father figure has an obligatory death to motivate Goku to accept his hero destiny. Justin Chatwin’s Goku comes off as bland and unlikable. His worst action in the movie is when he abandoned his grandfather to go to a party that his crush was hosting without even informing his grandfather.  

When his grandfather is eventually killed by the villain Piccolo, Goku meets Bulma, who is played by Emmy Rossum, on the way to find Master Roshi to help Goku with the quest to stop the apocalypse. Emmy Rossum is normally a class act in acting, but is underwhelming in this performance. Her main issue is the use of what I would like to call “anime voice.” There’s a certain incantation and vocalization that voice actors in anime use that works in an animated format but is quite awkward in the live-action. I can only assume that she was directed to speak that way because no human would ever think to speak like that on their own.     

The typical hero’s journey ensues: Goku gains allies and friends, learns more about the villain and bonds with his crush. Piccolo is another point of contention in the film. As a villain, he is neither threatening nor entertaining, and his green makeup is more comedic than alien. His lack of backstory and motivation in this movie does not create mystery or intrigue; it just implies laziness on the part of the filmmakers. I have not seen the anime, but from what I have absorbed from cultural osmosis, in the original, Piccolo is a lot more entertaining and less stoic than in the film. 

Does “Dragonball Evolution” deserve a 0.9-star rating? Well, just based on the whitewashing, I would say yes. But on its own merits as a film, separate from the source material, I would say no. It’s not something I would call good, however; it’s short, and that’s this movie’s only saving grace. “Dragonball Evolution” is generic and a waste of time, but it’s not traumatizing, and that’s more than some other bad movies can say. 

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