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Review - Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins (Ultimate Edition)

[NOTE: For the sake of clarity, this review will refer to relevant characters by the names established in Akira Toriyama’s original manga—because let’s be serious, nobody would willingly choose to call Son Goku “Monkey Boy.”]



I’ve spoken before about my fondness for bootlegs and “mockbusters.” From the various non-Disney straight-to-video Hercules cartoons to Zatoichi vs. Flying Guillotine, I simply cannot resist the allure of a rip-off of dubious artistic quality. One relatively obscure example of this phenomenon that’s been on my radar for quite some time is Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins, an unauthorized (and extremely low-budget) live-action adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s legendary manga series produced in Taiwan years before Hollywood’s Dragonball Evolution outraged anime fans across the globe. I never imagined that I’d actually encounter it in the wild, of course; in the past, it was rarely circulated outside of very niche conventions. In the era of streaming and digital distribution, however, it seems that no film stays unavailable for long…


So, what’s the verdict now that I’ve had the opportunity to see this notorious stinker for myself? Honestly… it’s not nearly as terrible as its dismal reputation would suggest. Make no mistake: it’s pretty bad… but its creative ambitions almost redeem its (admittedly significant) flaws. Indeed, its amateurish blemishes merely contribute to its inherent charm.



The movie earns points for being fairly faithful to the source material; with few exceptions, it adheres closely to the plot of the original comic—a variation on the traditional Hero’s Journey formula. This familiar structure—the call to adventure, gathering allies, receiving magical gifts, et cetera—serves the narrative well, evoking the audience’s fond memories of such classics as The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. The infrequent deviations from the established canon are, in general, sensible and pragmatic. Grandpa Gohan, for example, is alive and well as our story begins; his (apparent) death, in fact, is precisely what motivates Goku to embark upon his quest to gather the Dragon Balls—a perfectly reasonable revision that raises the stakes of the central conflict considerably.


The film’s most glaring weakness is its abysmal pacing, which is paradoxically both relentlessly breakneck and slow as molasses. The entire first act is a rapidly edited sequence of action set pieces utterly devoid of any semblance of context. An interminable fifteen minutes of screen time somehow takes an eternity to pass in the blink of an eye—a thoroughly disorienting experience that literally gave me an anxiety attack. The climax arrives with equal abruptness: as our protagonists lament their inability to locate the seventh and final Dragon Ball, a minor supporting character suddenly reveals that he’s had it in his possession all along; then, with absolutely no buildup or fanfare, we immediately smash cut to the gang merrily assaulting the villain’s stronghold—an incomprehensible gap in continuity reminiscent of Grindhouse’s infamous “missing reel” gag.



Still, the movie’s small pleasures ultimately outweigh its superficial shortcomings. Featuring decent pyrotechnics, solid stunts, and genuinely impressive fight choreography (particularly during the duels between Goku and Yamcha), Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins is, if nothing else, an endearingly campy kung fu flick. While it’s far from a forgotten masterpiece, it nevertheless remains an entertaining enough diversion.

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