Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods

Version I Watched: Theatrical English dubbed version.

History: Originally released theatrically in Japan on March 30th 2013. This marks the eighteenth theatrical Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z anime movie, but the first to be released since 1996. It was also the first Japanese film ever to be released in IMAX. Something that honestly surprised me. It hit other regions later that year and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray just about everywhere outside the states. The time I saw it was during a very limited theatrical run. In my area it's running once a day for less than a week as it has in other parts of the country. So far it has grossed approx $48 Million. Outside of America that's not bad mind you. Especially in a small country like Japan.
This is also the first Dragon Ball movie to be within the continuity of the series and manga. Taking place during a ten year time chunk late in the Z story. All other Dragon Ball and Z movies have been alternate universe or side-stories that don't fit in (with slight exception to Garlic Jr who made his way into the TV show.) This production also had the franchises creator, Akira Toriyama, heavily involved. Toriyama himself said he wanted to it partly as vengeance for the 2009 live action movie Dragonball: Evolution, which was a critical, financial, and all around failure especially to the franchise as a whole.

Personal History: Although there are ways of seeing this before it's brought to the states this is my first viewing. I do have an extensive personal history with the genre, though. Something I'll cover in the review section.

Review: Dragon Ball and I go back a long ways. Way back to middle school days. Can't say when I first got into it but it was at a time when we still had dial up internet, I had to be driven to school, and I didn't know what 'subtitled' meant yet. It became one of my biggest obsessions as a kid. I went nuts buying the tapes at absurdly high prices back when anime cost an arm and a leg just to get three episodes. Beyond that I went so far as to ordering bootleg tapes online of the movies and final episodes long before they were localized in America. Could talk forever about how obsessed I was with Dragon Ball.
With that said I have not kept up over the years. I have little to no knowledge of what the franchise has been up to if anything at all. I didn't even see all of GT but I hear that's okay to miss. I've seen the games show up here and there in the states. All I've seen since the glory days was a little of Dragon Ball Z Kai, aka DBZ abridged, so technically nothing new. Outside of that the only interest I've had in the franchise recently is to collect the original TV series on DVD (although I'm considering Blu-ray) now that it's actually affordable.
So this experience was set to be a fun return to the franchise for me. I can also be more open minded now that I'm not heavily invested in everything. At the same time that could be the downfall. Seeing as how Dragon Ball knows it's audience it will definitely play to that audience. I imagined everything I knew, loved and hated about the TV show would show up in the movie in a more condensed, eighty five minute version. Is that a good thing? Was hard to say going in. What I will say is I was incredibly excited going in while worried I was keeping my expectations too high with how much I'd enjoy it.
Well... I was not disappointed.

Before I continue I feel I should point out the obvious. This is definitely a movie made specifically with fans in mind. There's not just tons of references and callbacks to the series but there's also a lot of that knowledge incorporated into the story and how it plays out. This is definitely not entry-level Dragon Ball. It expects you to know a thing or two and doesn't care if you didn't do your homework.
But that's the great thing about this new movie. It takes the old and gives us that with a great mixture of new. Most of which is quite good.

Now I don't get to see animation on the big screen too often. Going beyond that I see 2D hand drawn animation even less often on the big screen. Adding on top of that it's an animation style and design I'm so used to seeing at home strictly for TV, done in a style that fits for TV. Bringing that to the big screen has always offered a unique experience that I find hard to explain. Like seeing something so familiar in an unfamiliar format.
That transition went incredibly well here. The vibrant colors and character design work well on the big screen. Not to mention the bigger budget offered supremely better animation than what would be seen on the show. You may find it odd I'm pointing that out but some of the previous movies had almost identical animation quality to the show. So not horrible, just not pulling off what it could. Thankfully Battle of Gods is likely one of the best looking of any Dragon Ball show or movie.
I say "likely" because the animation has one major downfall. While the traditional drawings look incredibly with a high quality, high definition reworking the animators also decided to include some 3D animation into the mix. I realize other countries aren't as advanced in their 3D technology as we are but this was still pretty rough for a 2013 movie. It just didn't blend well with the 2D animation winding up looking good only about half the time.

Thankfully it isn't present too long and doesn't break the immersion too often. After all this movie is very unique for a Dragon Ball storyline and the best part of it all is the antagonist. Lord Beerus isn't the same song and dance enemy like pretty much every single one before him. Something that's bugged me about Dragon Ball is how every new enemy is "THE MOST POWERFUL FOE WE'VE EVER FACED!" and said foe (like Frieza, Cell, Buu) is usually overly evil with the motivation of either killing all Saiyans or destroying the world. Beerus had different motivation.
Beerus, for context, is an actual god in the Dragon Ball universe. Not god-like. Multiple times he's straight up refereed to as a deity. His visual concept sure shows it, too, as they went as old school as possible by basing him off Egyptian gods going so far as making him look like a cat dressed in Egyptian-style clothing.

The story here is that Beerus has been asleep for the last thirty-nine years, waking early from what was supposed to be a fifty year sleep. He woke because of the prophecy of a worthy opponent known as a Super Saiyan God. So he travels to the only place Saiyans are left. Earth. Which may sound like a pretty standard Dragon Ball Z plot but the way it's handled is what makes it unique.
Right from the start Beerus is presented as the not so serious type. Going in I knew nothing about the character, assuming it would be standard protocol or at least kicked up a notch because this was looking to be a big movie. Imagine my surprise when the introduction of Beerus was a Warner Brothers style of "get out of bed!" humor. Matter of fact he carried himself so casually I didn't like it at first. I found it hard to believe this was the antagonist. Not only not feeling the threat, but when he gets in a sparring match with Goku near the begging and takes him out with two simple blows I found it hard to believe our heroes would find a way to beat him in the next hour.
But as the movie went on I started to really like him. He turned out to be a really cool villain because his presentation almost transcended him as a villain into something else. I started to remember that this guy is, in this universe, the literal god of destruction. If he really wanted to he could have wiped out the entire planet without even thinking about it. With that power means his life needs some excitement, which is why he went to earth in the first place.
Not because he was angry, not because he wanted to take over, he was simply looking for a challenger since he hasn't had a worthy one in so long. And the way he handles his threat to destroy earth is so simple it's kind of genius. His perspective goes beyond what a human or other mortals comprehend so it may seem silly to destroy a world because he was slightly annoyed. But that's the type of creature he is. He's a god after all. Destroying earth would be like us taking out a bee hive. A bee doesn't even have to sting us. It can just be annoying and we take it out.

So how does the movie play out? With big epic battles? Long power up sequences? Sometimes it does. For the most part it doesn't which is what makes it so unique.
Berrus' intentions are simply to find the Super Saiyan God for a challenge. He has no immediate issue with anyone on earth and has no real anger related issues connected with destroying earth unless he gets annoyed. So what happens throughout the second act of the movie? Berrus is enjoying a birthday party. No joke. Matter of fact a lot of this movie is very humorous. Definitely no joke.
Not sure if it was the crowd at the theatre or if it was really this funny but I found myself laughing at quite a bit of the movie. There were either humorous situation, funny dialogue, or all around silliness. Granted this is anime so there's a lot of anime trope humor. If you watch anime chances are you'll know what I'm talking about. If not, then I'll explain by saying anime humor tends to have the subtlety and cleverness of a frying pan to the face. Not saying that's always a bad thing, anime just doesn't know how to swing it most of the time.
Not Dragon Ball. I feel it has a better sense of how silly it is and it embraces it. Going through the franchise you'll find a lot of serious situations but rarely done straight faced. There's always been a lot of humor regardless of the situation. Making Dragon Ball pretty self aware but done surprisingly well for the genre it's a part of. And that's present in this movie.
Granted there are a lot of cringe-worthy jokes but that's to be expected. Partly because I felt the localization was pretty poor here and there... or that's the original writers trying too hard to be funny and relevant. Despite well executed scenarios and situations it still had piss poor dialogue in many spots.

When it's not being funny the movie is kicking a lot of ass. The final battle was pretty hardcore, albeit brief. Nothing too out of the ordinary for Dragon Ball. Flying all over the place, tons of blasts and screaming, they even wind up in damn near outer space which is where the fight has it's climax. With the higher production value it felt stronger than what you'd see on TV. And even though it is tons shorter than what we'd see on TV (obviously) I was not disappointed by how exciting it was.
Simply put, even when it's all said and done this new movie delivers in the same way the show did if not better. It's like it never went off the air it was so well done!
This finishes off with a fantastic ending where (SPOILERS!) Berris finds Goku to be such a worthy opponent that he lets him go with no hard feelings, leaving as friends, and decides not to destroy the earth. Later it is revealed Berrus didn't use his full power. Not even seventy percent. (SPOILERS END!)
Come to think of it. This was so much like Dragon Ball yet unlike Dragon Ball that it felt more like a character study than "another exciting adventure!" Since there wasn't a lot of fighting we got to know Berrus more in eighty five minutes more than other villains in a season's length of episodes. Even if it meant having some stupidly written exposition.

Which was one of my few problems with the movie along with the other stuff I mentioned much earlier.
I know I already mentioned this as well but there was some bad writing in an otherwise really well done movie for this franchise. Sure you can laugh off most of it but not all of it. Heck, even some parts had repeated dialogue that reminded me of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Still this is hardly a complaint because it's part of the charm. I don't (and I don't think many) watch Dragon Ball to take it seriously. It's hilariously fun because it knows it's corny, which doesn't mean it's bad, either. Kinda like Star Wars. Campy as hell and when it tries to take itself too seriously it suffers.
The only other thing I didn't like was when it tried too hard to deliver fan services. I'm specifically talking about the Emperor Pilaf side-story. Too much of the middle of this movie was taken up by Emperor Pilaf and his minions Mai and Shu trying to get the dragon balls. They previously wished to be young again but were turned into children and now regret it as they try to get another wish out. This call back all the way back to the original Dragon Ball franchise (pre-Z) did bring a lot of funny bits but was completely unnecessary. If it was the show then it would feel fine cause it's filler. But when your movie is already a short eighty five minutes I don't want filler. I want what needs to be there.

While not brilliant or an anime game changer this new movie was definitely a surprise that's easy to recommend. If you love Dragon Ball then you'll love this movie. If you hate Dragon Ball this won't change your mind. If you're on the fence or haven't watched in a long time this is definitely worth a shot. You may be surprised how strong some characters come off instead of stupid or one dimensional. Yes, I just described a Dragon Ball movie that way. That's how good this was!
...just as long as you're already a Dragon Ball fan or open minded.

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