“Do all of you remember the name Red Ribbon Army?” That’s the first of many lines of expository dialogue in “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero,” the latest animated action-fantasy adaptation-extension of the mega-popular “Dragon Ball” manga comics.
That opening line of voiceover narration also inadvertently prepares viewers for how convoluted the movie soon becomes.
Some tablesetting dialogue explains who the Red Ribbon Army are (bad guys) and why they’re back. The son of the Red Pharmaceutical Company’s founder, Magenta (voiced by Volcano Ota in the Japanese-language version and Charles Martinet in the English dub), wants to take over the world. But soon enough, this fairly straightforward beat-em-up spectacular, which pits heroic aliens against villainous robots, becomes a celebration of “Dragon Ball,” a decades-old anime institution.
Fans of both the “Dragon Ball” and “Dragon Ball Z” anime will probably be the ideal audience for references to the Frieze Force (evil warrior aliens), fusion special attacks (two guys become one guy) and senzu beans (edamame-looking fruit that, when eaten, give you superhuman energy). But open-minded viewers might also enjoy “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero,” given its playful dialogue and dynamic fight scenes. So if you can focus on what distinguishes this movie from others like it – mainly its well-honed synthesis of light-weight action drama and well-honed fan service – you might still have a ball watching it.
“Dragon Ball Hero: Super Hero” tellingly begins with a pre-title credit for original “Dragon Ball” manga creator Akira Toriyama, who scripted this new movie and provided its character designs. The amiable, kid-friendly quirks that define Toriyama’s characters are the real reason to watch “Dragon Ball Hero: Super Hero,” since its scenario often highlights the deep bench of supporting and main characters that have been introduced and developed over the course of several “Dragon Ball” sequels, spinoffs and adaptations.
Thankfully, the plot of the film isn’t hard to follow – despite frequent disruptive sub-plots, which stretch the narrative to include even more fan-favorite references and cameos. Most of the movie follows the good-natured second-string hero Piccolo (Toshio Furukawa/Christopher Sabat) as he prepares to fight Magenta and a new trio of super-strong robots: Gamma 1 (Hiroshi Kamiya/Aleks Le), Gamma 2 (Mamoru Miyano/Zeno Robinson) and the super-strong Cell Max (Norio Wakamoto/Dameon Clarke).
Nobody but “Dragon Ball” fans will care about the ties that bind these villains to their predecessors, not even the endearingly naïve Dr. Hedo (Miyu Irino/Zach Aguilar), the grandson of the original Red Ribbon Company’s killer robots. Thankfully, the Gamma twins’ retro uniforms still look cool, and Gamma 2 also sometimes gets in a good line of dialogue during his otherwise limited interactions with Piccolo.
“Dragon Ball Hero: Super Hero” otherwise mostly concerns Piccolo’s quest to rally all of his former allies, some of whom have kept in better fighting shape than others. Main protagonists Goku (Masako Nozawa/Sean Schemmel) and Vegeta (Ryu Horikawa/Sabat) take a back seat to accommodate other, relatively minor heroes, like Gohan (Nozawa/Kyle Hebert), Goku’s happy-go-lucky son, and Pan (Yuko Minaguchi/Jeannie Tirado), Gohan’s precocious three-year-old daughter. Several other supporting characters appear here and there, if only to help Piccolo get to the next plot point.
Uninitiated viewers will likely be dazzled by over-the-top fight scenes, which feature an impressive combination of computer graphics and hand-drawn animation. These climactic set pieces also feature compelling action choreography and a lot of shock-and-awe property damage, mostly from dueling laser beams and energy blasts.
The action scenes also feel like a fitting extension of the original “Dragon Ball” and “Dragon Ball Z” anime series in the sense that they repeatedly stop and start to cram in – you guessed it – a few more side characters and plot twists. So these visually overwhelming, epically proportioned brawls may not always make sense on a narrative level – particularly tangents involving senzu beans and the wish-granting Dragon Balls – but most of them pay off in an emotionally satisfying way.
Toriyama’s script didn’t include detailed descriptions of the movie’s big set pieces, but his keen understanding of his many characters helps to ground and give emotional weight to this movie’s otherwise over-inflated narrative. Goku and Gohan’s relatives push the plot farther than anyone else, which stands to reason given that Gohan’s family have traditionally been the focus of Toriyama’s stories. But even minor characters, like Krillin (Mayumi Tanaka/Sonny Strait) and Dr. Beerus (Koichi Yamadera/Jason Douglas) get to show off in a throwaway scene or two.
So in short, existing franchise fans will probably get the most enjoyment from “Dragon Ball Hero: Super Hero” since they’re more likely to care, for instance, when Goten (Masako Nozawa/Robert McCollum) and Trunks (Takeshi Kusao/Eric Vale) use a fusion attack to fight Cell Max. Diehard fans will also be the only ones to understand allusive references to Piccolo’s villainous past, back when he fought Goku and had a split personality. Still, while this new “Dragon Ball” spinoff may not be all things to all viewers, it’s also a thrilling showcase for Toriyama’s beloved characters.
“Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” opens in US theaters August 19.