Probably the best introduction for newcomers to the Dragonball mythos is this fourth animated feature. By this stage Dragonball Z, the television series chronicling the adventures of the grownup Son Goku, had lapsed into a seemingly endless succession of videogame-style fight scenes. Dragonball: The Path To Power takes things back to basics. It’s essentially yet another take on the origin story, less hectic than Dragonball: Curse of the Blood Rubies (1986) and with a more streamlined plot easier for non-fans to follow. Super-strong, happy-go-lucky, jungle boy Son Goku befriends Bulma, a beautiful, fabulously wealthy, teen inventor on the hunt for the seven legendary Dragon Balls. When gathered together they summon the dragon-god, Shen Long who grants the bearer one wish. Boy-crazy Bulma wants to wish for the perfect guy, while innocent Goku is happy to tag along and learn more about the big, wide world.
Joining them for further wacky adventures are Oolong the shapeshifting pig; Yamcha the good looking kung fu thief who is secretly scared of girls and wants the Dragon Balls to wish away his affliction; Pooal the talking cat who went to the same shapeshifting school as Oolong; and Kamesennin, the wise, yet hopelessly lecherous turtle-sensei who gives Goku his magical flying cloud and teaches him how to perform a supernaturally destructive martial arts move, known as “the Kameyameya.” This time round the gang tangle with the Red Ribbon Army, a secret organization of would-be world-conquerors led by General Red, a one-eyed midget too embarrassed to set foot outside his headquarters.
Even though it’s third-time-round for this particularly story, the telling proves sufficiently different. This film boasts far more lavish animation that doesn’t short-change creator Akira Toriyama’s delightful character designs, or the elaborate, pastel-hued fantasyland they inhabit. Martial arts super-powers are rendered with greater visual flair. Among the adrenalin-pumping action sequences is an exciting sky-bikes vs. flying cloud chase that recalls the speeder-bike scene from Return of the Jedi (1983), and a nod to Game of Death (1978) as Son Goku ascends the pagoda-like RRA headquarters to face a different opponent on every level. Including, in a surprise cameo, the Frankenstein Monster. His presence adds a touch of Karloffian pathos, as he bonds with Goku in a snowball fight that foreshadows the tear-jerking finale.
Whereas American broadcasters sought to remove several mildly risqué scenes from the television series, the film stays true to the manga’s Carry On style humour. Most of this inevitably centres around Bulma, who isn’t above utilizing her nubile charms to get what she wants: offering to teach Goku “the real difference between girls and boys” or inadvertently flashing two delighted perverts. Bulma’s sexy, red miniskirt proves oddly compelling for Goku, while Oolong fantasises about nuzzling her chest, but it’s all playfully innocent in an adolescent sort of way. For while there are sex gags galore and an action packed climax with a pot-bellied, red super-robot firing missiles everywhere, the overriding themes are innocence and friendship. Goku greets everyone, good or bad, as a potential friend. It’s his irrepressible spirit that serves as the backbone of this long-running franchise.