Before Hollywood wised up to the anime phenomenon that is Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball, the first live-action adaptation was this wild and wacky Hong Kong/Taiwanese production. After blink and you’ll miss ’em cartoon credits, we join a remote village where Tibetan monks bestow the sacred dragon pearl upon the new tribal elder. Suddenly, a UFO squadron blows the village to smithereens and hordes of hi-tech troopers invade, led by a hulking cyborg and a gold-clad Amazon in a Tina Turner fright-wig. Their scary, blue demon overlord, King Horn (Wong Chun Yiu) fries the monks with blue lightning. He now has two dragon pearls to aid his plan: summon the legendary Dragon God and rule the world. Hah, hah, hah! But where are the other five?
The answer lies with our preteen hero, Monkey Boy (Heo Seong-Tae)! Yes, that’s right. Not Goku, Monkey Boy. Shh… do you want the filmmakers to get sued? Anyway, Monkey Boy’s goofy grandpa (very much alive, unlike the anime) entrusts him with their precious pearl, after which they practice kung fu by leaping, flying and burrowing underground like moles. The super-strong, invulnerable kid spars a little too rough, leaving grandpa with cartoon stars circling his head. Shortly thereafter, Monkey Boy makes friends with Seeto (Ju Hee-Lee), a cute cowboy attired gadget girl seeking dragon pearls to add to her very own. After King Horn’s Road Warrior goons blow up grandpa, our heroes make a quick elephant getaway and set out to find the seven magic pearls. The trail leads them to a little girl called Jade (Annie Lai), sole survivor of the village massacre, and the lecherous, shapeshifting Pig Wizard.
Also after the dragon balls is outlaw, Westwood (Kim Chu Che). No, not the faux gangsta DJ. This guy has a Clint Eastwood fetish, dressed in a poncho and cowboy hat and firing a heavy machinegun. He quick-changes into a gold-caped wu xia ensemble for a lightning sword vs. pole duel with Monkey Boy, but goes weak at the sight of lovely Seeto. Seems Westwood is scared of girls and wants the dragon pearls to help cure his unfortunate affliction - much to the embarrassment of his wisecracking parrot sidekick. These colourful characters team up to seek help from the all-knowing, Turtle Hermit (Eddie Chan), who aside from his kung fu prowess is also a world-class pervert longing to see Seeto in her birthday suit.
It’s no substitute for the anime, but Dragonball: The Magic Begins (or Seven Dragon Pearls as it was known for years before the western video release) is quite fun in that energetic, off-the-wall, only-in-Hong Kong kind of way. While the plot - loosely adapted from the first anime feature, Dragonball: Curse of the Blood Rubies (1986) - is haphazard and relentlessly juvenile, the action is fast-paced and inventive and the special effects carry a quirky charm. Behind the madness were Kinko Films, a Taiwanese outfit who produced a string of popular children’s films, including Child of Peach (1987), Hello Dracula (1988) and New Pilgrims to the West (1982), many of which were directed by Chan Jung-Leung. Imagine Disney movies with violence, big explosions and sex gags and you’re halfway there. While the makers did not buy the rights to Toriyama’s manga - and claimed they were adapting its inspiration, the 16th century novel Journey to the West - their decision to stir together bits of the Monkey legend, space opera, fairytales, Mad Max (1979), The Terminator (1984) and good old fashioned kung fu nonsense, captures some of the lunacy if not its poetry and scope. Much of Toriyama’s bawdy, Carry On-style humour has been dialled down a notch, but then you can’t have everything. How much nudity do you expect there will be in the Hollywood version?