This, the first of Toei’s many theatrical releases based on Dragonball, is a fun curio in several ways. Firstly, it was the basis for the amusing Taiwanese Dragonball rip-off The Magic Begins. Secondly, it was the first Dragonball ever to appear in English, though it didn’t take off – which is probably a good thing, because otherwise we might have had Son Goku renamed Zero and Bulma being
Lena in the long-term. Thirdly, it has been
dubbed into English no less than four times – though those are four different
versions I have no interest in watching.
Like many Toei movies, including those for Digimon, Ojamajo Doremi and the first handful of those for One Piece, this was screened as part of a Toei event alongside two other Toei properties (in this case, Kinnikuman and Gegege no Kitarou), so its running time is not the 80+ minutes one might expect from an animated feature, but only around 50. Despite this brevity, the film does a very good job of truncating the entire first arc of Dragonball into a neat little package with only small alterations. Yes, rather than providing an original story, this first film went back to the beginning, to Goku being a strange, lonely monkey boy who had never seen another human being until Bulma showed up, to Yamcha being equal to Goku and scowling like a bad guy, to Kame-sennin being the strongest fighter in the world. Most of the major events bringing together the initial cast get repeated in a satisfactory and unrushed manner, with only the side-trip to the kame house seeming a bit extraneous when separated from the need to see a fan-favourite character.
To neaten things up, instead of Pilaf and his silly sidekicks, there is a new antagonist – a gourmet overlord who wants the dragonballs to give him food that will finally satisfy his tastes. Instead of Shu and Mai, we get Pasta and Vongo, who actually do pose a threat to the gang, plus a little girl called Panji who sets the action in motion by going to find someone to help rid her land of the gourmet monster. Handily, the overlord has already gathered most of the Dragonballs, so that with Goku’s and Muten Roshi’s, it doesn’t take long until Shen Long makes his appearance. The brilliant, iconic first wish made by Oolong is replaced here by a heartfelt one for a happy ending rather than bathos, but that’s a decision that makes sense for a film.
Brisk, simple and well-adapted, this early release really adds nothing to Dragonball, but is still entertaining to watch – and offers a chance to reminisce for those who haven’t seen the early episodes in a very long time.