After Dead Zone, I was slightly worried about some of the earlier movies. I feel that before Dragon Ball Z introduces fan favorites like Vegeta, Trunks, and other characters that join the ensemble over time, that perhaps the storytelling well would run dry at times. Alas, I was (at least partially) correct.
The movie begins with another ill-conceived hunt for the Dragon Balls spearheaded by Oolong with Gohan in tow. Seconds in, we already see that a stranger is gathering the Dragon Balls at rapid speed, revealed to be the infamous Dr. Kochin later.
This is actually a problem with the movie, since at this point Gohan should be able to fly and easily outmaneuver the old professor, — even if he is actually revealed to be a robot. I would personally theorize that the reasoning for making this old toothless professor a robot despite never alluding to it for almost all of his time onscreen was so that he could safely explode, I would infer that if a human was to explode into pieces it would cause problems for the movie’s rating.
The plot is not bountiful, to say the least. The villain seems pulled out of thin air, the motivations are asinine, and there is little explanation for why this situation arose. Dr. Wheelo is not a particularly interesting or scary villain, simply taking the form of a disembodied brain for almost the entire movie. The only character who seems to know who these people are is Bulma, who says she studied them in her schooling to find that they were the culprits behind an unexplainable mass murder. This gives us enough certainty that Wheelo is verifiably bad so that he can be safely killed without any sort of moral gray area.
Now, on the positive, this movie is another really well choreographed and visually striking movie. Perhaps a degree less so than Dead Zone, but still very nice looking for 1990. All of the fighting is very crisp and solid, and we are able to see a lot of different characters fight at different points. One thing I particularly enjoyed was seeing Master Roshi given a chance to briefly shine, since the villains who were frozen for 50 years still considered him the strongest martial artist on Earth.
In addition, I also really enjoyed the haphazard teamwork in this movie. Goku would not have been able to win by himself, Gohan and Krillin both come in at pivotal times to very briefly assist before getting knocked out. Piccolo is defeated at the beginning of the movie, becomes mind controlled, and then becomes an ally when this is subverted. Even Roshi comes in at a critical moment and saves Krillin from being annihilated by a minigun. There are a lot of moments where the heroes unexpectedly get bested, and it was a pleasant change of pace from the later trope of Goku being the only one to handle business.
There are a few more gaffes in this movie, specifically the fact that Dr. Kochin was simply standing in the open for almost the entirety of the final battle, seemingly ignored by the entire party of heroes until he turns his arm into a gun and almost annihilates Krillin and Bulma. But more interestingly than that, there is another bizarre Gohan dream sequence. This time, instead of getting “funny” (read: drunk), Gohan instead falls asleep while studying and has a dream about following a stern Piccolo like a son. Chronologically, this would have been after Piccolo’s training in the Saiyan Saga, so it makes sense, but is still a really weird thing to include specifically since Goku, his actual father, is alive and living with them again.
This one did not hold up as well as Dead Zone. The plot meanders, and it is a lot more noticeable with the hour long runtime. The villains are also particularly bland, one of the few I did not recognize going into the movies, and now I see why. The visuals and choreography definitely kept this one afloat, but bonus points for one of the greatest Piccolo shots of all, pictured below. I am, however, still excited to watch the next in the series!