Fenzel on Dragon Ball #4: Dragonball Abomination "Z"

Fenzel on Dragon Ball #4: Dragonball Abomination “Z”

My first attempt to write this post failed, so I’m taking off my weighted vest. It’s time to get serious.

THIS IS THE ORIGINAL INTRODUCTION TO THIS POST, WHICH WENT ON A STRANGE JOURNEY . . . A JOURNEY INTO THE WEST . . . A QUEST FOR A WISH . . . and how that wish went unfulfilled. Why did this introduction not result in a successful post on first attempt? Read on . . .

Fenzel on Dragonball titleDozens of you have asked me whether I’ve seen this movie and what I have to say about it. Well, I just watched it on DVD, and it made me a little sick to my stomach. So, read this article. You owe me.

To say my expectations were low going into Dragonball: Abomination (sorry, Dragonball: Evolution) would be an understatement. Even using that cliché to describe it understates the degree of understatement. This is a movie that deeply disappointed me even before it was even released – originally, it was to be a big-budget, live-action Dragonball movie starring Chow Yun Fat and produced by Stephen Chow that was released on my birthday.

It became clear early on that all was not right with this production. The leaked production stills were way off the mark in any sort of reasonable stylistic approach to the material, people were complaining that Goku was a white high school student, as opposed to the child Monkey King of ancient China. It began to come out that it was being directed by the Final Destination Guy, that the studio executives were doing their usual thing and forcing awful failures of artistic decisions on the production out of their own vanity and pigheadedness, and that producer and legend in his own time Stephen Chow had been effectively cut out of the loop. The release was delayed almost a year, presumably for Pluto-Nash-related reasons.

When it came out, the marketing was disastrous. It lost its “built-in audience” almost immediately, and it never found another one. There’s almost universal belief that this movie is awful, but even hardcore Dragonball fans have pretty much refused to see it.

Until now.

Why shall these eyes see light that have seen nothing but darknessWhat I expected was an irredeemable accident starring the guy from War of the Worlds made by a bunch of people who stole the costumes and props from the people making the Dragonball movie and decided to shoot a random-ass CGI movie about bullshit.

What I got, well, it was certainly a failure. A huge failure. It deserved to bomb with every megaton in its payload. But it wasn’t an accident. It was something quite a bit worse. It screwed everything up on purpose.

Now, the fanboy in me could bitch and moan about it all day — there’s plenty for any fanboy to bitch and moan about. But let’s put that aside for a moment, and ask the real questions — find the real reason why this movie is the way it is, and why it failed in what it attempted to do.

This will be readable for non-Dragon Ball fans and probably include some good lessons. Because with a failure this big, there are plenty of lessons.

Power up, it’s time to Read More . . .

BulmaOkay, what followed was an intense, detailed autopsy of the movie — pointing out what the producers intended in making it, providing a rudimentary overview of the Syd Field three-act paradigm, and talking about how overcoming the obstacles to creating the live action Dragon Ball movie — getting past the roadblocks that make Dragon Ball hard to make into a Hollywood film, its complexity, its comedic elements, its character design, the length and structure of its story — became the sole goal of the project.

The movie gets to the point where they cut away so much of what made the piece work, that what was left was a series of non-resonant symbols that seemed uncomfortably out of context — all attached to crappy teen romance fresh out of the CW.

And who the eff watches Dragon Ball for the romance? There is zero romance in Dragonb Ball. Okay, one time, Krillin has that crush on a robot, but only once. The rest of it people are either making sex jokes or they are married, either because of a joke gone wrong or because they’re lonely and happen to be hanging out. No romance at all. Just everyday life, loving the one you’re with, settling down and having kids, and getting in titanic kung-fu battles to determine the fate of the planet and the universe.


Okay, that’s better. Anyway, this post was about form and function in storytelling, how they are related by more than just taste and coincidence, and how when a piece is really well integrated, you can’t just pull things out of it and expect its other virtues to continue to persist. And also, you shouldn’t always assume that the thing that makes a narrative successful is its details — its setting, its costumes, its character’s names. Really good stories do something more, which you can’t so easily extract.

Supreme, by Alan Moore. Check it out if you haven't. I enjoyed it.

Supreme, by Alan Moore. Check it out if you haven't. I enjoyed it.

It’s sort of like how Superman is a really crappy comic book character most of the time. He’s way overpowered, and to make stories interesting that involve anyone else (like the Justice League cartoon), you have to somehow weaken him or take him out of the story.

Except, you know, some of the best comic books ever made have Superman in them or Superman comparisons (like The Dark Knight Returns). There’s something about Superman that can play a role in really great stories — and something about him that is just totally awful in others. Goku and friends pretty much work like that, which is why the original Dragon Ball series, nearly all 18 years of it, are awesome, and why pretty much every attempt to retell it in a spinoff or a movie has sucked Dragon Balls by comparison.

Well, then, you know what happened?

My computer glitched erased all of it. A huge post. Something I could probably never write again. It made me pretty angry. How angry, Vegeta?


Actually, angrier than that. How angry, Captain Ginyu?


Actually, angrier than that. How angry, Cell?


Yeah, pretty frickin’ angry.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. . .

6 Comments on “Fenzel on Dragon Ball #4: Dragonball Abomination “Z””

  1. Chris R #

    I think that I was not interested in this because, as you point out, the Show itself was so silly. I generally am not interested in something which is unable to take itself seriously on some level, and in that way I always kind of felt that the Dragon Ball show felt false. That being said, a serious rendition of the story might not be bad, if done VERY VERY well. From the sound of it, it was not done well. I feel for your loss. I am a big Star Wars fan, and if some basterdized drivel ever came out with the Star Wars name, i would be decently upset….oh, wait….I feel your pain.


  2. pave #

    ohlordy! best trailer ever! now i haaave to watch it. and was that chester bennington?? :D


  3. Daniel #

    Amen, Brother Fenzel! Yeh, I have always had a live-and-let-live attitude towards bad installments in great franchises, (i always assume that they’re doing their best, and at least they can’t harm the great stuff that’s already there) I’ve never gotten angry over a movie like this before, but when I saw that movie in theaters a couple months back, I was furious. I’d never gotten anywhere near this angry about any piece of pop culture, but I was listing its utter failures to anyone who’d listen. To this day, I can not imagine how a movie couple be made that utterly bad without either intentionally trying to pull into a tailspin or at least being unintentionally funny in its failure.

    I think the main thing it lost me on (maybe even more than the things you consider to be the “deadly sins”) was gutting of the innocence out of the show, and mainly out of the Goku. Goku is supposed to be dumb, simplistic and totally unselfconsious, that’s a bit part of what makes him such a lovable character. If he’s not doing slapstick comedy and fighting evil with an enviably clear definition and getting sentimental over the dead and playing with friends then he’s not Goku, he’s just an interchangable, Shia La Bouf-esque teenaged main character who spends 80% of the movie being angsty and self-obsessed and trying to fuck Chi-Chi.

    You make a good point when you suggest that maybe he is supposed to be the “Great Saiyaman” but even then I think it’s very possible to make a good movie out of that. In fact, I’d like to suggest that that would actually be serviceable idea for a movie, and quite possibly the direction they should have gone with this movie (so long as they went for it whole-heartedly) because it needs less of the back story, multitudes of characters, and long-term rhythmic pattern that you talked about in the post. I actually quite liked the Great Saiyaman micro-saga or whatever you want to call it. Now granted, I was like 11 at the time so the wish-fulfillment aspect probably played into that, but in my opinion it was like a little revisiting of the original Dragonball in that it was all about the fun, whimsical nature of this world they live in and how this naive, super-powered country boy deals with this strange new world and how others perceive him. Even if it makes no freaking sense that somehow turning super saiyan and having blonde hair makes it TOTALLY inconceivable that anyone would ever notice that he is actually a local student. The problem was that within the first 5 minutes of the movie they failed even that by making him some unlikable dickhead-turned-kung-fu-badass who wanted to show off by beating stereotype jocks into the ground.

    I dunno, any thoughts on that?

    Anyway, I want to make a special request to you, Fenzel: Can you please give at least a little of your glitched rant on the next podcast? (or at least talk a little more about your thoughts on Dragonball and the movie?) You are always very funny and insightful when you go off on little rants on the podcast, and i’d be interested to hear what the others think on the subject. (even though as non-DBZ fans their observations will be more broad)


  4. Gab #

    I watch “The American President” to feel better. ;p

    I think one of the ways I excuse “changes” in screen adaptations is determining whether the changes help to make the screen version a better film, since books and series are different forms of entertainment than movies. How Harry gets what he needs to make it through the task in the lake during the fourth movie was different from the book, to bring Harry Potter as an example, but I thought the way it was done was rather cute and simple, made sense for the film itself, and it even gave a character that had been watered down in other ways a chance to shine in a completely original way (“Oh my God, I’ve killed Harry Potter!”- just about killed me, in a good way).

    But from what you say, it sounds like even this isn’t what went on, so the DB movie wasn’t just a bad bit of DB, it was a bad piece of filmmaking in general. Even the music was bad? Yeesh. Having watched a lot of DBZ when in middle school, I was really excited when I first heard about the movie coming out, and I thought the first teaser trailer looked really good (yeah, I know… sorry). But I think my mind was gradually changed as the articles I read about the production while it was being made because the more I knew about it, the less appealing it was to me. Now I’m not sure if I’ll even watch it if it ever comes on cable.

    Do you think it could have succeeded if they had taken one of the micro-plots from the series itself and turned it into a movie, leaving the ending “wrapped up” enough to *allude* to bigger things, but at the same time still having decent closure? I’m thinking of an ending like, say, “Batman Begins” or any number of movies where Really Bad Stuff Happens and you know there is all sorts of reconstruction and cleanup to do when the credits start rolling (including getting rid of more baddies or something), but it still feels like that’s a fine place to stop and you’re not freaking out, “OH MY GOD WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!?”

    Or, let me put it this way. What would *your* DB movie be like?


  5. stokes #

    As I understand it – and Pete, you’ll have to correct me here – the show started out with kung fu fights that were about on par with the kind of stuff you’d find in a Jet Li movie (that is, already superhuman, but not gratuitously supernatural), and that lasted, at most, two episodes. As the show goes on, the fighters get stronger and the fights get longer, so that by the end, people are blowing up entire planets with energy blasts, and a single fight can eat up half of a broadcast season.

    An ideal Dragon Ball movie would be a really rigorous compression of the show’s structure. This could be hilarious fun. At the beginning of the film, you’d have people doing wire-fu (or even simpler, Shaw Brothers type fight sequences) that would last no more than ten to fifteen seconds. In the middle, you’d have fight scenes about as long and elaborate as the ones from The Matrix. And then the last, like, 15 minutes of the movie would literally just be devoted to two people doing the ol’ energy blast tug-of-war.

    Over the end credits, the surviving characters would collect the dragon balls, wish everyone else back to life, and have a giant cookout.


  6. fenzel #

    @ Dan –

    I agree, I agree, I agree.

    I mean, how many more millions of comic books does this franchise need to sell before the media machine realizes that people _like_ Goku? That there’s nothing wrong with him the way he is, and yeah, he comes off as stupid (although I contend he’s much smarter than he looks, he’s just tremendously naive, innocent, and uneducated in most things).

    And besides, if you want angst, you can always bring in Vegeta. It’s a mark of just how incredibly awful this movie is that almost nobody who sees it complains that Vegeta wasn’t in it — which I can almost guarantee you would have been one of the #1 complaints if this movie had been at all serviceable and made about the Demon King Piccolo saga.

    And yeah, to both Dan and Gab, playing out any one of the show’s micro-plots would have been better than trying to swallow all of it and failing.

    I mean, it’s not like they didn’t make this movie way too complicated anyway, and it’s not like it wasn’t set up for a sequel anyway, so I don’t see what you lose from paring it down. I would have loved to have seen 10 DBZ movies.

    @ Jordan —

    You are exactly right. It starts out slow, and it builds and builds and builds, and that sort of stylistic approach would have been awesome.

    My highest reasonable expectation for the live-action DBZ movie would be of one like you describe — “Man, that movie was stupid, but that half-hour long fight at the end was AWESOME.” If the DBZ movie ended up being totally sacrificed to create one of the most memorable, over-the-top fight scenes in movie history, well, I think almost everybody would be totally fine with that. There would be poetry in it.

    @ Gab

    My original post included a LOT about how I would have done the Dragonball movie if I had written it. I’ll try to recall as much of it as I can here.

    Basically, I had two approaches — make the Dragonball movie and set it up for a sequel, or make the Dragonball Z movie.

    The Dragonball movie would lump together the first few searches for the Dragonballs like so —

    Idea 1: Turtle School vs. Crane School (this is the more conventional one)

    The main arc of this movie is about how the Turtle Hermit and the Crane Hermit have rival kung fu schools and different outlooks on life (“Life is meant to be enjoyed — have fun and try your hardest at everything you do,” vs. “Victory at all costs — murder civilians, fight dirty, be hate your enemies with all that you have.”)

    The first villain introduced is the assassin Taopaipai – and we make him work for the Crane school rather than the Red Ribbon Army just to make things simpler. We see Taopaipai kill somebody innocent to take a Dragonball. He has crazy Jet Li level kung fu powers. Maybe they’re in a monastery that is guarding the rice cooker that holds Demon King Piccolo, and in the fight, the rice cooker is cracked.

    Then we cut to Bulma meeting Goku. We learn a little bit about the Dragonballs, about how Bulma is looking for a boyfriend, and how Goku’s grandfather died and this is all he has to remember him, so he’s going to go find the others. Maybe we do a little bit of pat pat sex jokes and stuff.

    We cut back to Taopaipai and are introduced to Tenshinhan and Chiaotsu. Tien is clearly not very happy with what is going on at the Crane School, but he works hard. Maybe we see him spar Taopaipai (This departs from the series, but Tien is introduced very abruptly in the manga, it’s better to give him a little development). The main contrast in Tien’s life is how much fondness he has for Chiaotsu vs. how much the Crane school tries to train him to be a heartless weapon.

    We go back to some random adventures with Goku. I’m tempted to just cut Yamcha altogether. Yamcha sucks. I think what we do . . .

    And, oh crap, I just found out that Patrick Swayze died :-(

    I have to go take care of that. I will write more on this another time.


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