I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find Dragon Ball Z to be a pretty overrated anime. Some of that sentiment stems from the fact that it’s considerably more popular than its predecessor, Dragon Ball, despite being the inferior product. Part of that also stems from the fact that Dragon Ball Z fans seem to regard it as the greatest anime of all time, rather than what it really is; the most popular anime of all time. This is not to say I find the show to be a bad one. For awhile during the 1990’s I found myself quite captivated by the show. I was incredibly disappointed that the dub, for many years, ended right in the middle of the Namek Saga with Goku preparing to take on The Ginyu Force (I was also really disappointed when the series finally returned with an all new and quite terrible dub). Little did I know, that I had basically seen the best of the show up to that point. While the Cell Games and Buu Saga have their moments, for the most part the show became almost a self-parody with extended filler sequences and familiar plot lines.
It’s the formula of Dragon Ball Z that makes it a rather pedestrian television program. The characters are all simply constructed and tend to embody one archetype. Each “season” consists of the gang being forced to take on the latest “Most Powerful Being in the Universe” with the same familiar pattern: dispatch weak enemy, hear latest prophecy of doom, be defeated by said enemy, train endlessly, power-up and defeat enemy. The stakes are always the same, and even though characters are killed off several times, they usually find their way back to the land of the living and there are few lasting repercussions on the show (aside from the novel concept that the characters do age over time). It was basically like watching an animated fighting video game: it just moves from one battle to the next with very little connecting tissue in-between. As such, it’s quite easy to take a cynical view towards the show but it still has its moments where it’s genuinely entertaining and even charming.
If one were to be jaded with the prospects of another extension of the Dragon Ball Universe, they’d likely be less interested in yet another Dragon Ball Z film. The show was so successful that it rather logically spawned feature films. These films were little more than cash-grabs and often contained less plot than the show and an even more obvious formula. Thirteen films in all were released based off of Dragon Ball Z with virtually none fitting into the canon of the show’s storyline. Aside from a select few that contained some genuine entertainment value, most are just mediocre with the only contribution they made being the superior animation when compared with the show. As a result, I was not all that enthused to hear that Toei Animation was returning to the series for a new film: Battle of Gods. The only cause for optimism was that it was announced series creator Akira Toriyama, who had little involvement with the awful Dragon Ball GT, was handling the screenplay and character designs. Toriyama, unlike some of his fans, seems to understand what makes Dragon Ball special. It’s not some super sophisticated anime meant to challenge the likes of Neon Genesis or Cowboy Bebop, it’s strictly intended to entertain with humor and action.
Battle of Gods opens with some familiar characters pondering the awakening of The God of Destruction. Supreme Kai, along with Elder Kai, fear what this god may do now that he’s awoken early while King Kai gives Goku a quick lesson on who this guy is. It’s not a very promising open for the film as it’s pretty much in line with most of the movies and we know Goku and this god are going to have to have a showdown. We’re then taken to this god’s home world and are introduced to Beerus, The God of Destruction, and his attendant Whis. One of the themes of Dragon Ball is to never a judge a book by its cover, and Beerus embodies that concept quite well. He’s basically an anthropomorphized sphinx cat complete with tall ears and a wrinkly cat muzzle on his face. Not only does he look like a cat, but he also embodies one as well. When we first meet him he’s just waking up from a 39 year slumber much in the same way we’d expect any cat to awaken. He’s lethargic, hungry, and summons for Whis almost immediately. Later we’ll see him acting rather petulantly and impatiently while also toying with his prey, further driving home the point that he doesn’t just simply look like a cat, he is one. Whis gives him a refresher on what transpired during his slumber, and he’s quite pleased to learn that Frieza dealt with those insolent Saiyans by destroying their planet. He’s further surprised to learn that one dubbing himself a Super Saiyan defeated Frieza, which reminds him of a dream he had where he encountered a Super Saiyan God. Remembering this, Beerus decides to journey to earth to meet the one who defeated Frieza and to hopefully find out more of this Super Saiyan God.
When Beerus arrives he encounters Goku almost immediately, and in true DBZ movie fashion, they fight and Goku is easily outclassed. Unlike other films, Beerus is essentially neither friend nor foe. He isn’t a good guy, but he’s also not really a bad guy. Sure he’s The God of Destruction, but apparently someone has to be. He decides to seek out Vegeta to see if he knows anything of this Saiyan God, since he learned nothing from Goku, and finds the Saiyan prince at his wife’s birthday party. Beerus loses interest in his pursuit of a Super Saiyan God when it turns out Vegeta knows nothing, and not wanting to turn down an opportunity to feast, invites himself to the party. Some hijinks involving some familiar faces for Dragon Ball fans occur at the party and things seem to be going well until Buu hogs all of the pudding, sending Beerus into a rage. Only Vegeta knows just who Beerus is and what he’s capable of, which is why the other party-goers jump to their friend’s defense further irritating Beerus. This causes him to declare that it’s time he destroy earth, just as Goku shows up. The heroes are able to request Beerus give them five minutes to consult The Eternal Dragon on the matter of a Super Saiyan God, and when Shenron reveals the secret of how to produce one, Beerus gets his wish.
Of course, Goku is the one to step-up and challenge him as the very underwhelming Super Saiyan God. If you were expecting a fantastic new transformation then you’ll be let down to see that “God Mode” is essentially a skinny Goku with a bad dye-job giving his hair a reddish hue. He possesses a fiery aura, which looks kind of cool but is also visually distracting, but that’s about it. Goku and Beerus fight, and I won’t spoil the outcome but you can probably guess at the ultimate end result.
The plot for the film is rather familiar, and judged solely on that, the film is a disappointment. However, how it navigates the plot is what helps to elevate it above the normal DBZ fare. For one, Toriyama’s humor is sharp, and while there are some in-jokes to be found for longtime fans, the majority of the humor is fairly natural. It’s also refreshing as Beerus is the source for much of it. He’s definitely one of the better villains Toriyama has conceived of and his ambiguous nature and ambivalence towards mortals makes him almost charming, in a way. He plays off of his attendant Whis fairly well, a character who also embodies a notable Toriyama trait in that he’s a supremely powerful male with obvious feminine features. Toriyama’s affinity for food-related humor shows up in both Whis and Beerus as they’re very interested in the different flavors present on earth. Thankfully, we’re spared the often repeated visual of Goku stuffing his face which stopped being funny somewhere around the character’s first visit to King Kai’s planet.
For fans of DBZ’s unique action sequences, the film may be a disappointment. A lot of the time is spent on Beerus interacting with the earthlings at the expense of the big fight scenes the show is known for. When the film does go there, the action is a bit restrained. Some of that is a plus. As the characters grew in power during the show there was basically no way to visually establish they were stronger and faster than they were 100 episodes prior making many fight scenes look visually lazy as the characters “moved too fast for the naked eye.” In Battle of Gods the action is slowed down and there’s a satisfying weight to the blows landed. There’s still a few instances of old standby DBZ staples, but they’re not overused. Despite that though, the action is underwhelming and some curious uses of CG effects didn’t help things.
Visually, DBZ never looked better. The animation is smooth and every scene pops with bright colors. Some may have thought the more muted color palette of the manga would be present since Toriyama was so heavily involved but that is not the case. The only criticism I have of the visuals is the just mentioned CG used in the fight scenes. While the characters fly through a city landscape, it’s rather obvious the backgrounds are being drawn by a computer. This is a fairly common effect going back to the 1980’s but I’ve always found it jarring. Less forgivable are the few instances in which the characters themselves are CG animated making them look like they’ve been ripped right out of the latest DBZ video game. It looks silly and something I would recommend they scrap for future features.
Dragon Ball Z has had an up and down relationship when it comes to the english dub. The original Ocean Group dub was a mixed bag, but was miles ahead of the original Funimation dub that followed. Funimation first starting dubbing DBZ over 15 years ago, and all of that time with the series has actually lead to a pretty wonderful english cast. The voice actors, most of whom have been on the series since the beginning, really know their characters. The writers handling the localization also know these characters and they’ve created a very lively and witty script. The language is probably of a PG nature though there’s very little in the way of graphic violence. If you’re a longtime fan of the series who prefers to watch it subtitled, then by all means, watch it subbed but you won’t be missing anything if you go the dub route.
Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods managed to both meet my expectations and also exceed them. The general plot is typical for a DBZ movie and rather boring, but the presentation is excellent (aside from a few visual hiccups) and the film is genuinely entertaining. It’s probably too long by about fifteen minutes, but not long enough to feel like a drag. The way the film is written makes this feel more like Dragon Ball than Dragon Ball Z. For me, I consider that a good thing but those who enjoy DBZ for the over-the-top action may be disappointed. Lastly, the introduction of Beerus was a success as I’m actually interested to see more from him. Apparently, Toei and Toriyama were banking on that as he’s in the recently released Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F and is also a recurring character in the new television show, Dragon Ball Super. I have no idea if more Dragon Ball Z is a good thing or not, but I do know that Battle of Gods was a fun nostalgia trip. Time will tell just how long that trip lasts.