Yeah, I went to see this in theaters.
Very disappointing overall, and not because I expected it to be good. I expected it to be embarrassingly awful, but what I got was merely average. Still not good, but not bad enough to laugh at.
The nearest comparison I can draw is to the 1990 live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I enjoyed that film as a kid, and I could see my younger self liking Dragonball Evolution just as well, but, for an adult whose patience has been worn thin by years of similarly simple-minded stories of cartoon heroics, this movie is just too slow and uninteresting to justify its inherent preposterousness.
On the bright side, Dragonball Evolution is surprisingly not a cheap cash-in on the popularity of the Dragon Ball Z anime. Missing that mania by a few years, it draws upon the earlier Dragon Ball series for a story that can stand on its own as effectively as almost any kids' action movie, so I'll try to judge it on those terms, rather than against its source material. With regard to production, this is no Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. It's a legitimate theatrical release, with real special effects and some nice sets and locations. The effort is admirable, and, honestly, this is probably as good a live-action Dragon Ball movie as we could ever expect to get, though, really, that's just evidence that the project was and always will be a bad idea.
The best parts of the film are all at the beginning, where the story departs most dramatically from the source material, casting a not-even-remotely-Asian Goku as a normal high school student who, for some reason, must keep his immense power a secret from his classmates. Of course, he often can't help himself, and, in its irreverant juxtaposition of ordinary-looking people with farcical cartoon physics, the movie's beginning is even a little evocative of Kung Fu Hustle.
During the early high school segments, Justin Chatwin as Goku kind of channels Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, but with more confidence. The character is the exact opposite of the real Goku, but, taken on its own, the performance makes for a still fairly likable young guy that you can root for against the mean bullies that try to keep him down. Once the story moves into the globe-trotting quest for the Dragon Balls, however, Chatwin seems completely lost, struggling through the heroic dialogue as if he himself is hearing it for the first time. But Chatwin's performance is about the only thing worth a laugh.
The rest of the movie is just harmlessly generic PG action material that drags on in its juvenile construction. It's not slow in the way the Dragon Ball Z anime is with its interminable fight sequences. There is very little actual fighting in the movie, and that's the problem. Despite its modest running time, not a lot happens. The film charts a very predictable course to an anti-climactic outcome. The characters spend most of it lethargically voicing their worries about things that then come about on cue without much proper buildup.
The search for the Dragon Balls barely registers as a subplot. In the original series, the quest had the main characters journeying across the world, stopping at obscure towns and meeting eccentric characters along the way. Getting the Dragon Balls then usually required overcoming trials, such as winning the favor of an old hermit, or ridding a village of a local menace. The episodic structure and potential for hijinks were what made the early Dragon Ball adventures constantly entertaining, and why it originally sounded sensible for the filmmakers to go that route instead of adapting any of the more popular Dragon Ball Z arcs. But in the movie, the characters only find one Dragon Ball that doesn't already belong to one of them, and it's just randomly in the desert. The only challenge in taking it comes from the enemy forces who are also trying to retrieve it. Then some phantom time limit expires and the movie decides to bring an abrupt end to their wanderings. At least, unlike most action movies these days, it resists the urge to set up a sequel.
Dragonball Evolution is by no means a terrible movie, but it's not a very good one either, and, with Dragon Ball fans already having so many excuses to hate this film without even seeing it, being blandly mediocre may be a worse offense than being laughably bad. While I think Dragonball Evolution is the higher-quality product, I honestly enjoyed Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li more, precisely because it was at least bad in a fun way.