There will be no hating on Dragonball Evolution in this review. The film has a lot stacked against it: It's based on an anime series long past its height of popularity, and it always was second to the likes of Pokemon. It's aimed at kids, so you never know how childish it might be. It's got a lot of CGI and wirework, which is so passé. Yet Dragonball Evolution overcomes all of that to become a magical thrill ride, appropriate for kids but not condescending toward them.
Goku (Justin Chatwin) has been training in martial arts up to his 18th birthday, as evidenced by a laundry-line balancing act reminiscent of classic Hong Kong movies like Iron Monkey. His duty is to protect Dragon Ball number IV, but his grandfather forbids him to fight in school, so he still gets harassed by bullies. He is able to dodge them and make them hurt themselves, in another scene reminiscent of Hong Kong cinema, where the noble hero will not strike against A-holes who deserve it.
However, when Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) comes looking for the Dragon Balls, Goku must spring into action. Joining Bulma (Emmy Rossum) and Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat), Goku seeks Balls 1-3 and 5-7 to keep them from Piccolo's hands. It's something about the creators of the universe and destroying humanity, but that's just some complicated story. It's really about having fights and looking like anime.
I'm being cavalier not to detract from Dragonball Evolution but rather to embrace it. No matter how revered the anime or manga is, there's no way the story of Dragonball would come across as anything more original than the usual fantasy mythology knocked off by genre movies. What it can be is a cool adventure for kids.
The magical element is wonderful because it focuses on empowering the kid to be his greatest. The fights may be familiar to disciples of martial-arts cinema, but they're replicated well and presented in a format that just might interest kids in the real deal. The freeze-frame effects dutifully mimic the anime style and give the film a unique edge without going all Matrix on us.
Does Goku rescue the Dragon Balls and defeat Piccolo? That's all busywork. The fact that Dragonball Evolution is an engaging spectacle is a triumph. It could have gone so wrong at several different points. Director James Wong seems to have a vision, appropriately modest but respectful enough to deliver solid entertainment.