Well, a heck of a lot, actually...
The latest trailer for the live-action Dragon Ball movie has been drawing groans of pain from the anime fandom. Actually, the movie's official title is bellyache-inducing on its own: Dragon Ball Evolution.
Really, what the heck is that about? It may be folly to judge a movie by a trailer alone, but it's hard to remain hopeful for the final product.
It's unrealistic to expect a shonen anime to translate perfectly into a live-action movie. It's especially unrealistic to expect as much from Dragon Ball, which has characters flying and kicking each other into cliffs and ingesting three hundred times their body weight in rice. There's no possible way to put together a live-action Dragon Ball movie that's going to please everyone, but it would have been nice if Stephen Chow and James Wong had kept a few points in mind when penning the script.
Why the sassy teenage Goku?--Dragon Ball's primary protagonist, Goku, is a killer alien sent to cleanse the Earth. A fortunate bonk on the head packed away his destructive instincts and he became a good-natured boy. Even as an adult through the Dragon Ball Z saga, Goku maintains an endearing balance of naivety, good nature and seriousness. He takes pleasure in life, but he's serious about protecting his family, the world, the universe—whatever he's called upon to guard.
The decision to cast Justin Chatwin as Goku in Dragon Ball Evolution has come under fire for various reasons. The main one (“He's not Asian!”) is easily dismissed: Goku isn't of Earth, after all. It's not a big deal if his actor doesn't subscribe to a particular nationality But neither is Goku some rad to the max teenager who's “not ready to handle” an invasion by Piccolo. Another one of Goku's positive traits is that he never doubts himself. In the manga and anime, he's the one to seek out Master Roshi and learn from him. He's the one who resolves to do whatever it takes to battle the threat of the Saiyans when they first land on Earth. Most of all, he's humble and innocent—traits that he seems to be lacking in the trailer.
Journey to the What?--It's not immediately clear what Dragon Ball Evolution plans to do with the series' extensive story. The original Dragon Ball is a goofy take on the Journey to the West fairy tale. Goku's story is fun because it features mismatched characters on a long rambling road. Along the way, they encounter monsters and magic. They make friends of enemies.
Dragon Ball Evolution is evidently loosely based on one of the series' later arcs: Piccolo's attack. Admittedly, it's one of the series' more serious story arcs, but there's something generic about the trailer's presentation of it.
The well-traveled path—The Dragon Balls have always been a mysterious artifact. Though their origins are explored in more detail as the series goes on, their function has always been obvious: to grant the finder(s) an awesome wish through a honkin' big dragon. Dragon Ball Evolution has turned the Balls into seven artifacts that banished some evil or something and need to be used again because oh my stars, that evil is coming back. To be fair, it's understandable why the movie would want a reason for Goku to go after the Balls beyond, “He just wants to, okay?” Too bad it has to be such a boring reason.
In the movie's defense—Journey to the West is a serious tale that Toriyama decided to put a humorous spin on. Dragon Ball Evolution might simply be seeking to put a serious spin on Toriyama's work.
It's not easy to put together a live-action version of a beloved cartoon. It rarely works out well. Is there anything wrong with trying? It's hard to give a yes or no answer to that. Dragon Ball Evolution radically alters the personality of a franchise thousands of anime fans grew up with. The decisions were obviously done in the name of marketability; part of the failing of mainstream anime and game movies has to do with the need to appeal to an audience outside the fandom. Sure, fans want to see young Goku travel with Bulma and run away from dinosaurs, but what about everyone else?
“Who cares about everyone else?” is the easiest response, but when there's a budget of $100 million that needs to be reimbursed, it becomes a lot harder to say.
We can only hope we all derive a crumb of enjoyment from Dragon Ball Evolution.