Confronting the Possibility of a Disney Live-Action Dragon Ball Movie

Remember that part in Dragon Ball: Evolution when Justin Chatwin’s Goku Dukes-of-Hazzard-slid across the roof of a car using his absurdly strong hair? This moment is only one among the many poor decisions made in the making of the critical and commercial failure that was the live-action Western Dragon Ball film. We would eventually come to find that part of the blame lay in the fact that Director James Wong had no prior knowledge of the series when working on the film, a baffling piece of history that may very well repeat itself. 

What makes me say this? Well, almost exactly 10 years after Dragon Ball: Evolution graced the big screen, The Walt Disney Company finalized the purchase and acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which produced and released Dragon Ball: Evolution and retained the rights to live-action Dragon Ball films up until its Disney acquisition. That means the House of Mouse now has the exclusive right to produce and distribute a cinematic universe based on one of the most important, influential and impactful pieces of pop culture ever made. 

Will Disney ever cash in on weebs? Probably not. Am I going to play Dabura’s advocate and imagine a Dragon Ball Cinematic Universe (or “DBCU”) at the risk of invoking the wrath of Star Wars, Marvel, and Dragon Ball fans anyways? Yes, yes I am. 

Dragon Ball Evolution

Phase 1: Saiyans, Namek & Frieza

Both because Dragon Ball: Evolution futzed up adapting the original Dragon Ball series and because American fans know its sequel series far better, I’d imagine that Disney would adapt Dragon Ball Z first, starting with a Saiyan Saga movie. I’m willing to give Disney the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the beginnings of a franchise, so this first entry of a potential Dragon Ball film universe could be pretty dang good. Maybe not five star material, but a solid B+ movie with a few clearly-made-by-executives decisions weighing it down and/or disappointing fans. 

Starting the film with Goku’s death would be the quickest way to get into the action, and Goku’s training under King Kai and Gohan’s time with Piccolo would serve as the second act, which would come to a climax and end with Goku and Vegeta’s battle, a duel that would likely be a CGI mess. Other Disney-ified elements would manifest in most of the cast being white, horrible quips undercutting every emotional moment (Piccolo’s meaningful sacrifice to save Gohan followed up by a jab at Goku for being a bad dad), overdesigned Saiyan armor, and worst of all, teases all throughout the film that not-so-subtly scream at the viewers to go see the next one.  

And speaking of the next one, I’ve no doubt that, for the sake of doubling the box office numbers, Disney would split the Frieza Saga into its subsagas, the Namek Saga film first, followed by the Frieza Saga proper — if it worked for Infinity War, it’ll work for Dragon Ball. Even if this isn’t the case, we’d still see some major markers of corporate filmmaking.

If not cut out entirely, the Ginyu Force will be over-designed to look like a “realistic Dragon Ball” DeviantArt submission, Frieza’s forms will likely suffer the same fate with the added bonus of CGI mushmouth a la Justice League’s Steppenwolf and an X-Men: Apocalypse-esque makeup debacle that wastes the potential of the actor in the role (I don’t know, Elijah Wood?), and Goku’s Super Saiyan transformation will likely be revealed in the trailer months before the film’s release and will probably have dialogue similar to the old dub that painted him as an “Ally to good, nightmare to you [Frieza]” as well as its own share of strange design and CGI choices. 

We’re only three movies in, so strap in, folks.

Dragon Ball Z

Phase 2: Prequel Series, Androids/Cell & Spinoffs

The biggest change marking Disney’s takeover of the MCU and Star Wars is endless spinoff material, and thus with three films under its belt, the Dragon Ball Cinematic Universe would be quick to branch out into television with an adaptation of the original Dragon Ball — even if fans don’t quite love it as much as Z, Disney would leave no IP stone left unturned. Likely a Disney+ original, the live-action Dragon Ball series would have to tone down just about everything from the source material. In fact, it would probably be reimagined with much more of its roots integrated into the adaptation: more Journey to the West and a lot less gags, oddball characters and adventures, making for a more serious, serene martial arts tale with quippy MCU-esque humor thrown in and nary a sexual joke in sight.

Heck, all sexual humor seen throughout the series would, without a doubt, be cut out and Master Roshi would be turned into a serious, less satirical version of the great fictional martial arts masters that inspired his creation — in some sense a welcome change, but one that would both enrage many Dragon Ball fans and stand as emblematic of the corporate-created DBCU.

However, the much more noticeable mark of this would be the connections. Somewhere along the line of making the MCU, Disney developed the misconception that fans love being metaphorically winked at with nods, loud and abundant connections, “hey, remember this?”’s and references to other entries in the shared universe, so most episodes of a Disney+ Dragon Ball series would come to a grinding halt to essentially pull the audience aside and tell them what’s going to be important later and what ties in with the movies. 

While all this is going on, Disney would be gearing up for the Android and Cell sagas — which would be split into two, possibly three films — as well as developing one or more spinoff series. Starring who and about what? The cynical answer to both would be a. money and b. the cracks of a massive media franchise created by a media monopoly showing as said franchise gets too big and desperate for content beyond the limited source material. My actual educated guess answer would be one of the following: a side-film about Launch, Tien Shinhan’s origins, Yamcha’s desert bandit days, the rise of the Red Ribbon Army or an adaptation of Future Trunks’ timeline as depicted in The History of Trunks. However, the most likely outcome is that all of these spinoffs will be announced… and then some will be delayed… and then reshot… and then cancelled, then changed to a TV miniseries that fails and is later retconned and so on and so forth. 

More Crimes:

Dragon Ball Z

Phase 3: Buu Saga, Super 2 & Sony Buyout 

By the time it reaches the Buu saga, our fictional Dragon Ball Cinematic Universe is well on its way to the status of a bloated, overproduced film franchise in its own right, but that won’t stop in its tracks. In fact, it will go all-in on the Majin Buu film, and by all-in I mean it will attempt to fix what many have deemed the worst saga in all of Dragon Ball Z. If the way that Disney attempted to “correct” choices made in The Last Jedi with decisions made by committee in The Rise of Skywalker is any indication, it won’t end well. We will likely see baffling decisions made by completely out-of-touch executives attempting to keep those live-action Z-fighters toys flying off the shelves by overstuffing the Buu movie with action, “fixes” to the source material and probably a fully redesigned Majin Buu that veers away from his fat, jovial self and into frightening horror territory. 

Additionally, by this point in the DBCU, Disney will quickly realize that they could be making more money off of the Dragon Ball franchise, specifically by owning the North American distribution and dubbing rights to the anime. Funimation currently owns the licensing rights to Dragon Ball, and they happen to be 95% owned by Sony, a company Disney is in an unending corporate pissing contest with over Spider-Man film rights. 

Now, this is where I start to sound like I’m Pepe Silvia-ing a little, because were there a Dragon Ball Cinematic Universe, Disney wouldn’t hesitate to kill two birds with one stone. By making a bid to acquire Sony, much like how they acquired Fox’s IPs, Disney could gain Sony’s properties, including no-strings-attached film rights to Spider-Man and majority ownership of Funimation, and thus American Dragon Ball distribution rights, as well as a number of other popular anime.

Dragon Ball

Phase 4: Toriyama, Theme Parks, Endless Dragon Ball

With a Buu Saga film out, spinoffs and TV series winding down to their ends and significantly less substance to adapt from Dragon Ball Super, Disney’s Dragon Ball Cinematic Universe would begin to be starved for source material to adapt. What’s the solution to this? Well, after possibly cycling through Dragon Ball Z movies for more spinoffs, Disney might make another frightening media monopoly power move and go after the source of Dragon Ball, Akira Toriyama himself. 

No, they’re not going to kidnap him and force him to make more Dragon Ball (though I won’t rule it out). Instead, I see them throwing obscene amounts of money at him and Shonen Jump parent company Shueisha to buy ownership of Dragon Ball. I’ve no idea how much money or convincing it might take for Toriyama and Shueisha to concede and sell Dragon Ball to Disney, but I assure you, they will do all it takes to get their way. And if Disney obtain ownership of Dragon Ball, they can make more manga chapters, more anime, more live-action adaptations of them, more video games, more trading card games and so on and so forth. Add to this the potential of theme park attractions and Dragon Ball could become the new Star Wars of Disney’s media empire. Soon enough the Disney Dragon Ball empire would become fully automated: what does and doesn’t get added to the franchise and what happens throughout it will be determined by the Disney algorithm, and soon there will be endless Dragon Ball — isn’t that great?!

Who knows if Disney will ever cash in on the live-action Dragon Ball rights they acquired from Fox, but if they ever journeyed down the road of a Dragon Ball Cinematic Universe, they would likely go full force. Like Cell and Majin Buu’s absorption powers, Disney will grow stronger upon each devoured entity, never stopping until they are the most powerful in existence. While Goku fights against all-powerful gods, aliens and monsters, Disney’s ownership of these adventures will be the worst villain of all… But hey, we’ll finally get more Dragon Ball Super episodes, so there’s that, right?… Right?!

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Sean Aitchison

Sean Aitchison is a big fan of cartoons, anime and video games and is therefore a huge nerd who you should all make fun of. He also loves digging up the lost, and often cursed, treasures of pop culture's forgotten media. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcasts, Pop Cultured and Influenca.

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