This is the story of how it all fell apart
In the fall of 1998, just a few months before Kids' WB gained a record-breaking hit with Pokemon, Cartoon Network made their own landmark anime acquisition: Dragon Ball Z. For a series that would soon become synonymous with the medium of anime itself in America, Dragon Ball Z hadn't exactly had a smooth time making a name for itself in the states. Its first dub had run for two seasons and then been canceled as broadcast syndication companies just didn't seem too thrilled about it and others wanted to focus their attention elsewhere, leaving Goku homeless — a Saiyan without a channel.
Cartoon Network began to air reruns on weekdays and ordered more episodes to be dubbed due to their success. Soon Dragon Ball Z began to make a splash in the home video market, breaking the Top 10 in video sales at times. In the span of a few years, Dragon Ball Z went from seemingly being a lost cause to a household name, as for many, Dragon Ball Z wasn't just another anime series. It WAS anime. And this, like with anything that becomes popular in the entertainment world, attracted some outside attention.
$100 million worth of attention, to be exact.
What followed would lead to one of the most infamous anime adaptations ever: Dragonball Evolution, a movie that remains decried by anime fans and its own filmmakers to this day. Its story is not a simple one, but one that deserves to be told.
Part 1: Big Screen Dreams
In March 2002, Twentieth Century Fox announced that they'd gathered the rights to make a live-action version of Dragon Ball Z, one that they planned to spend $100 million on. Now, Fox was no stranger to big action blockbusters based on comics. In 2000, they'd released X-Men, which gathered solid reviews and made nearly $300 million worldwide. Along with Blade, this signaled a comeback tour for superhero films, a genre that seemed in dire need of a reboot after the immense critical failure of 1997's Batman & Robin.
Fox had big franchise plans for X-Men and began formulating the same for Dragonball — along with plans for other Shonen Jump series. And to show that they intended on making something that lived up to the grandeur of the work it was based on, they enlisted Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama as creative consultant, with Toriyama saying, "I have always drawn my manga with the desire to create something unique to comics ... But recent movies have surprised us by entering such territory that used to belong only to comics with wonderful technology and wisdom."
But while a promise of a $100 million smash would seem to indicate a quick push forward, it wasn't to be. In fact, over two years went by before a screenwriter was announced. Ben Ramsey, who had written The Big Hit for Sony and was now working on adapting Luke Cage for them (this film would never end up being made), signed on to write Dragon Ball Z.
This was long before Disney and Marvel began to gather all of their heroes under one Mickey Mouse shaped umbrella, by the way. Just a few years earlier, Marvel had declared bankruptcy and then offered EVERY property they had to Sony for only $25 million (To put that in perspective, Robert Downey Jr. would be paid $50 million just to be in the first Avengers.) Sony wasn't interested, of course. They usually only have eyes for Spider-Man.
Ramsey was paid half a million for the script — of which the original version seems to attempt to flesh out the world of Dragonball. Krillin was there (for a little bit), and so was Pilaf, the Ox King, Oolong, and many others. In fact, a bunch of the more fantastical elements from the original Dragonball series at least made cameo appearances, even if their roles and designs seemed to be drastically altered for a live-action film.
Ramsey seemed like a good fit for a Dragonball film. He's a big fan of martial arts movies like Enter the Dragon and actors like Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. He'd also eventually direct martial artist/actor Michael Jai White in the supremely underrated underground fight flick Blood and Bone. And a few years later, Dragonball would gain a man with plenty of credentials in the world of martial arts cinema: Stephen Chow.
Most people know Chow from the martial arts parody films he directed like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, films that, while funny, also display a deep love for and knowledge of martial arts flicks. It had all come after starring in copious Hong Kong action and comedy films in the '90s, and considering the tone of Dragonball, Chow seemed uniquely suited to oversee such a project. But Chow would not be directing it, as he preferred to only direct things that he had created.
Chow would sit in the producer's role and instead, 20th Century Fox would hand the directing duties to James Wong, who was fresh off of Final Destination 3. He'd also directed the first Final Destination and the Jet Li sci-fi/action film The One, but admitted that he wasn't very familiar with Dragonball at the start. He dug the script, but only became truly enthusiastic about the prospect of the movie after being sent some of Toriyama's manga, which he considered "amazing." In fact, before reading the manga, he revealed that he didn't know "what to do with this thing."
He also wanted to "incorporate some hip hop or dance moves" into the fight scenes of the film, finding that they made things more fun. That claim remains questionable.
The actors were also set around this time, with 25-year-old Justin Chatwin playing the 18-year-old Goku, James Marsters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame playing Goku's enemy/rival Piccolo, and the legendary Chow Yun-Fat playing Master Roshi. And then finally, in November 2007, five-and-a-half years after Fox's original statement, the beginning of Dragonball's filming was announced. Immediately, something seemed off.
Part 2: The Hero's Journey
In the Variety announcement article, it explained that while Ben Ramsey wrote an earlier draft, James Wong would be directing a script that he wrote. Now, this is not uncommon in Hollywood. Plenty of directors take a sort of editing stab at their screenwriter's material. What makes it odd, though, is that in the end, Wong would not be credited for the script that he "penned." Instead, the credit would go entirely back to Ramsey when the film was released, a film that was not yet called "Dragonball Evolution," just simply "Dragonball."
And where would they shoot Dragonball? Durango, Mexico, with Durango meeting the crew's needs in terms of resources while the film's production provided many jobs for the city. This might seem odd, but Durango was no stranger to Hollywood productions. John Wayne's The Sons of Katie Elder had been shot there, and so had Clark Gable's The Tall Men. It was also known for the filming of Buck and the Preacher, the debut directing job of Sydney Poitier, the first African American man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. But those highlights had been decades ago and Durango was looking to reinvent itself as a prominent hub for cinema.
The Durango Film Commission was also extremely generous with presenting itself as a location option, stating that it would pick up important members of the production in a Lear Jet and offer them a helicopter for production at "no cost." While a backlot would be built for exterior scenes, most of the film would be shot in an abandoned Jeans Trousers factory, turned into a 1,000-foot long filmmaking facility for Dragonball.
The process of actually filming Dragonball was rough, though. Marsters required a four-hour make-up job for Piccolo and if he didn't cool off between takes, he'd sweat the make-up and prosthetics off. The harsh desert winds damaged multiple set-pieces and Wong would tell Newsarama, "It didn't seem like we had an easy day on this movie at all," and that he wasn't sure what certain special effects-heavy sequences would end up looking like.
Regardless, the actors would remain optimistic. A few months after filming began, Marsters told TVGuide that Dragonball was "the coolest television cartoon of the last 50,000 years," had a "Shakespearean sense of good and evil," and that he was told that the film would cost "about $100 million." He lamented that the female characters in the original series "aren't drawn well," but "we're going to fix that in the movie."
Chatwin, who'd appeared a few years earlier in Stephen Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake (where Dragon Ball toys can be seen in his character's bedroom) would compare Goku to Luke Skywalker. Chow Yun-Fat would say that he enjoyed working on the film, as did many of the other actors. Late in 2008, with the release of its first trailer, Dragonball was quietly renamed Dragonball Evolution, hinting that we wouldn't quite be getting the full Dragonball story, but rather a chunk of it. And in a few months, this hint would turn into a promise.
Part 3: Ya' Gotta Wait Until The Next Episode For It To Get Good
With the American release date just weeks away, a new round of press would center on one specific theme: Don't worry, it gets better in the next movie.
Marsters had signed for three movies but wanted to make five, or even seven since "my character only really gets interesting in the second film." Chatwin said "there's so much we haven't shown yet," and seemed to describe the first film as mostly exposition, but still worth watching. Chatwin also noted that the sequel would dive more into Dragon Ball Z territory and that there was a script for a second film already written, but he'd only heard about it and hadn't read it yet.
On April 9, 2009, one day before the United States release, an interview with director Wong on Telecinco news gave an even more sobering look at the film. He talked about working on "three or four" drafts, though there was already a script by Ramsey, and that "In the world of 'Dragon Ball' anything is possible and there were many fantastic elements that I wanted to include in the film, but we couldn't really afford it." This quote would come after the reveal that, despite the multiple claims of a $100 million budget beforehand, the budget actually came in at half that, totaling $50 million.
Wong seemed interested in making sure the film was grounded enough to get non-fans into the series, fearing that fantastical elements would confuse or drive them away. He mentioned getting rid of a "talking animal" character (probably Oolong or the shapeshifting squirrel-esque creature Puar) from an earlier script draft, and that while the manga had unlimited freedom, the movie had to be limited due to "the time we had and for the budget." He also said that he didn't really pay attention to any internet criticism and that he'd be happy to do another Dragonball film if it was the sequel "that we all want."
The film had premiered in Japan the previous month, with Chatwin describing a plan to have him explode out of a giant ball at the Japanese premiere as silly at first, but eventually pretty cool. He also recalled being confused by the Japanese audience's silent reception of it, eventually rectifying it as the response of a "more respectful" culture. His take on the budget? "Dragonball was a $120 million film."
But despite efforts like a tie-in PSP video game and a Shonen Jump Dragonball Evolution posterzine released by VIZ Media, nothing could stop the tide that was about to hit the film. It made less than $10 million in the United States (the 2018 anime film Dragon Ball Super: Broly would make over twice as much) and the reviews were overwhelmingly negative. Critics called it "uninspired," "cliche-ridden" and a "surreal mess," among many, many other things.
So what happened? Well, to answer that, we have to look at what didn't happen ...
Part 4: "A Strange Confidence"
"I was told it was a $100 million picture, and Stephen Chow would be producing. I get down to Mexico, it's a $30 million picture. No one's met Stephen Chow, he's only on paper. Aaaand I got no stuntman."
That was James Marsters' response to a question about Dragonball Evolution at Monster Mania 2009, just four months after the release of the film. Nine years later, he'd say that he was told the film had a $120 million budget at first and that both he and Chow Yun-Fat had gone to Mexico excited to work with Stephen Chow. But Stephen Chow wasn't there, leaving Marsters and Chow Yun-Fat "fooled" and "cursing in the desert."
So where was Stephen Chow? Well, a few days after the American release, the reason for Chow's disappearance from anything to do with Dragonball Evolution, from the production to the promotion, was revealed: No one had let him do his job. "Except for giving a few suggestions, I did not have an actual role," he told a reporter during a phone interview. "It's true that they did not accept my decisions," he added.
And what of Akira Toriyama's role as a "creative consultant?" He'd found that the script didn't make the best use of the characters and their world, "so I cautioned them, and suggested changes; but in spite of that, they seemed to have a strange confidence, and didn't really listen to me." In the Dragon Ball Super history book, he'd also claim to be "upset" about it.
Ben Ramsey, who'd taken a lot of flack for being credited with the screenplay, initially said in a 2010 interview "Go talk to the director about that one! That's his vision, not mine" However, in 2016, he'd issue an apology for the film's script, calling the experience of writing for such a reviled film "gut-wrenching," and receiving the hate mail "heartbreaking." He admitted to writing the project for the money, rather than as a fan, and didn't blame "anyone for Dragonball but myself."
And when it comes to creating films that he's actually passionate about? "That's the only work I do now."
For more of my Crunchyroll Deep Dives, click here to read Licensing of the Monsters: How Pokemon Ignited An Anime Arms Race
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
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