Film Reviews: 'Dragon Ball' Movies
With its flashy battles and intense fighting being what the Dragon Ball franchise is best known for, it can be easy to forget that this story started out as the fairy tale adventures of a little boy, and that those adventures started out with such a silly, light-hearted tone. In contrast, the later sequel series Dragon Ball Z would eventually get darker, more sophisticated, and introduce increasingly high stakes. Greater and greater evils would emerge for Goku and his friends to face.
The beginning of the story, the original Dragon Ball series where Goku is just a kid, is not, however, without its darker or more serious moments. But it starts out comedic in tone. There is surprisingly a lot of comedy surrounding Bulma being female, as if that were hilarious in and of itself. The perversion of Oolong and Roshi contrasts with the pure, kind, and self-sacrificing nature of Goku. Goku draws great power from this nature of his, which enables pure focus and gives him the determination necessary to keep fighting when things get tough. And they frequently do.
1st Movie: Curse of the Blood Rubies
An evil, greedy, fat king is destroying the world because he has an insatiable hunger caused by magical gems called blood rubies. Not only a hunger for more food, but also for more treasures - he wants to collect the dragon balls. Some thugs get sent by that king to try to take Goku's four star dragon ball. Bulma rushes to help him, as she is also looking for the dragon balls. At first he thinks she's a monster because he's never heard of a girl before, and the only human he knows is his (adoptive) grandpa. When Bulma and Goku get to Goku's home, the dragon ball is gone, replaced by a gold coin. Bulma summons a fighter plane that they use to chase after the bad guys' plane. While chasing after the bad guys, Goku runs into shape-shifting pig Oolong, tough guy Yamcha, and they meet Pansy. Pansy is a little girl who was the victim of the mean king's brutality and obsession with blood rubies.
They seek help from Master Roshi, also known as the Turtle Hermit, because of his rumored power. It is here that, in this version of the story, Goku learns the Kamehameha Wave, Master Roshi's most powerful energy blast technique, and first rides the Flying Nimbus, a magical cloud that you can only ride on if you have a pure heart.
The gang is able to defeat the evil king, and of course they summon Shenron with the Dragon Balls. Shenron is a powerful dragon who grants one wish to anyone who has gathered all seven Dragon Balls. When they make a wish and it is granted, the Dragon Balls scatter around the world. Pansy makes a wish for everything to be beautiful as it was before. Not only does Shenron do this, but he also destroys the blood rubies from the soil, presumably to stop this whole thing from happening again.
Sadly, this version of the story does not include Oolong getting a wish for women's underwear.
For a movie that came out in 1986, this still holds up remarkably well. It's a light hearted comedy most of the time, but it also offers great action and adventure. The plot isn't that deep or unexpected; it's a standard, greed-driven villain who has to be stopped. But the movie is full of cute moments that evoke the innocent wonder of a child's mind, and that's what makes this movie so memorable and emotionally captivating.
2nd Movie: Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle
This movie introduces Krillin, who shows up when Goku is training under Master Roshi. Krillin wants to be Roshi's trainee too. But, Roshi is hesitant to take on two pupils at once, so he devises a competition for them. He heard a story about a castle with a sleeping princess, and the boys go on an adventure to try to find out if the story is true. If so, whichever of them can bring back the princess wins.
The castle in question is owned by a guy named Lucifer. He sort of looks like Dracula, but he doesn't really drink blood. Turns out, the "sleeping princess" is just their name for a magical gemstone they possess. He plans to use it to blow up the sun so he and his demonic followers will be free from the sunlight that causes them pain.
During the fight, Goku turns into an ape when seeing the full moon. Yamcha and his little cat buddy Puar figure out that his tail is his weakness, and they cut it off, so he won't hurt Launch, a girl they met along the way with two personalities. Reverting to human form, Goku is able to use the Kamehameha attack and kill Count Lucifer. Both boys are allowed to train under Master Roshi.
This movie was decent, but not spectacular. It's cute, and it's nice to see Goku learn more of his powers and build his teamwork and friendship with Krillin, Bulma, and the other guys. But this one is just a silly film that feels like a Saturday morning cartoon. Nothing too ground-breaking. The villain is pretty goofy and campy. I think that's the style Dragon Ball had originally, and only gradually over time did the series progress towards being more serious. But this one isn't great, even by that standard, and if you're trying to run through the whole big franchise, it's definitely skippable.
3rd Movie: Mystical Adventure
Krillin and Goku want to prove themselves by entering in a fighting tournament. The tournament is being held by a child emperor named Chiaotzu. He wants to get the Dragon Balls to bring back his lost doll, Ran Ran, which he calls his wife. But evil underlings, led by Minister Shen, conspire to get the Dragon Balls, and the wish, for themselves, so that they can oust the emperor and rule the world themselves.
Bora, a Native American man, aims to protect the final remaining Dragon Ball from falling into their greedy clutches. In the commotion he causes with the others of the gang at the tournament, the Dragon Balls end up accidentally being thrown into a ravine. Goku throws the final ball into that ravine, and asks Shenron to resurrect a defeated Bora.
This movie introduces Tien (in the sequence of movies) as Chiaotzu's bodyguard. Initially, Tien is on board with Shen's plot, but he has a change of heart because of his fondness for Chiaotzu. It also shows Goku meeting Korin, a martial arts master who is a cat who lives atop a pillar in the sky.
This one was probably my favorite out of all the Dragon Ball movies. There are emotional scenes with Tien and Bora. There's the cool fighting, powers, and action you'd expect from any movie or story arc in this franchise. Mystical Adventure is the Dragon Ball film with the greatest emotional weight, and also a movie that manages to have loads of characters, while giving each of them some unique way of contributing to the overall story.
4th Movie: The Path to Power
This movie was made to commemorate the Dragon Ball series' ten-year anniversary. It was made during the production of Dragon Ball GT, and you can see some stylistic influence from that show here, especially in the type of gi (uniform) Goku wears. This one does not continue from where Mystical Adventure ended. Instead, it acts as a new, alternative retelling of the events of the beginning of Dragon Ball.
It starts with a wholly different but similar version of the first time Goku met Bulma, followed by them running into Oolong (as a shape-shifter they fight, again), and Yamcha. Navigating towards the next Dragon Ball takes them towards an intimidating metal tower. There, they are attacked by the Red Ribbon Army.
An android called Android 8 is sent out to kill Goku, but the android decides to go pacifist, instead becoming friends with Goku. Goku saves him from being killed and travels with him, giving him the nickname "Eighter". The gang, of course, meet up with Master Roshi, get his help, and Goku is given the Nimbus that only he can ride.
In a final fight with the bad guy, Eighter sacrifices himself to save Goku. Eighter's death enrages Goku, and his swelling emotions give him the power to defeat the bad guy with a Kamehameha Wave. The dragon Shenron is summoned. Bulma and Yamcha realize they don't need to wish for love anymore because they've found each other. So instead, Goku wishes for Eighter to come back to life.
This movie is a little uneven. The ending is emotional and will resonate with the viewer. It's very touching. But getting there is a slog, because the beginning is just a mediocre rehashing of events you've seen before (albeit slightly differently) if you saw either the first movie or the original series. There's some moments I liked, like when Master Roshi takes off his turtle backpack thing and gets all swole, but overall this movie was just kind of boring, up until the emotional climax.
Overall, I really liked the Dragon Ball movies. This series, along with Dragon Ball Z, is one of my personal favorites, because it has so many great emotionally compelling moments and memorable main characters. Each movie is pretty short, so you could marathon all four (or skip Path to Power, and watch the original three) in an afternoon. It's close to the time you might spend watching The Titanic, and I'd say it's definitely a better use of your time. These are delightful, sometimes silly movies, but they all offer heart, action, and adventure. They give the viewer a sense of child-like wonder and awe. So, worth checking out, for the young at heart of all ages.
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© 2019 Rachael Lefler