Akira Toriyama's manga creation is one of the most popular of all time. Known in Japan as Dragonball: Legend of the Dragon, this is the first in a series of Dragonball mini-movies that appeared annually for the next fourteen years. Toriyama's premise reworks the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West, the same story that spawned the live action television hit Monkey (1979). Seven dragon balls scattered around the world are sought after by various pilgrims. When brought together they summon the mighty dragon god, Shen Long who will grant the bearer one wish. Into this scenario Toriyama injects heroic doses of sci-fi, playful surrealism, naughty humour and numerous nods to his hero Jackie Chan.
Evil King Gourmeth is addicted to eating the blood rubies buried beneath his kingdom, even though their curse has transformed him into a bloated demon. His machines tear up the countryside in search of more, while shock troops terrorize the local farmers. When King Gourmeth decides to seek the legendary dragon balls to sate his hunger, a brave little girl named Pansy goes looking for a hero. Meanwhile, deep in a mystical valley dwells Son Goku, an invincible kung fu boy from outer space, who owns a dragon ball. Raised by his late grandfather and living wild amongst talking animals and dinosaurs, Goku is super-strong, wields a magic staff and a flying cloud, but is a true innocent with a big heart. He befriends Bulma, a beautiful gadget-wielding teen-adventurer searching for the dragon balls, but they're left swiftly robbed by Gourmeth's minions, Pasta and Pongo.
Whilst trailing the bad guys, Goku and Bulma rescue Penny from a giant monster that turns out to be Oolong the shapeshifting pig, whereupon they're all ambushed by Yamcha the handsome highwayman (who is secretly scared of girls) and his sidekick Pooal the shape-changing cat (who went to shapeshifting college with slacker Oolong). After an encounter with Kamesennin, the wise, all-knowing turtle sensei, the pilgrims patch up their differences and take the fight to King Gourmeth.
This essentially retells the first few episodes of the television series, but with added tweaks like Penny and the whole King Gourmeth subplot. The story is condensed in a way that might seem bewildering to newcomers, but still races along amiably with frantic action, zany Warner Bros. style gags and non-stop invention. Characters are as lovable as their toothy grins, while the big sister-kid brother dynamic between Bulma and Goku is appealing. Muted in the English dubbed version is the innocent, adolescent sexual curiosity (Goku has never seen a girl before and frequently stumbles on Bulma in the bath) and Toriyama's trademark Carry On style humour (characters often try to sneak a peek at Bulma's bazongas).
Dragonball has everything: mad martial arts, crazy gadgets, transformer robots, monsters, magic and wisecracking animals, plus a joyful boy hero whose kindness imparts a moral lesson or two. Little wonder it held so many kids spellbound across Asia for so many years. Light on plot when compared to the TV series and with better Dragonball movies yet to come, this remains a nifty little taster of what for many Asian kids was a generation-defining phenomenon equal to Star Wars (1977).