Between the original “Dragon Ball” and its sequel series, “Dragon Ball Z,” “Dragon Ball GT” and “Dragon Ball Super,” the popular anime franchise encompasses well over 600 episodes and two dozen theatrical features, but the stories reliably follow a simple arc: Some menacing villain appears, threatens the planet’s takeover or destruction, and fights our irrepressible heroes, including Goku (voiced by Sean Schemmel in the English dub), Vegeta (Christopher Sabat) and Gohan (Kyle Hebert).
In “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero,” the latest “Dragon Ball” outing, directed by Tetsuro Kodama and written by the series creator, Akira Toriyama, the menacing villains are state-of-the-art androids, Gamma 1 (voiced by Aleks Le) and Gamma 2 (voiced by Zeno Robinson), who have been built by an evil conglomerate called the Red Ribbon Army with the express purpose of overcoming our heroes. Gohan and the Namekian warrior Piccolo (also Sabat), upgraded to top billing, are responsible for the Earth’s defense, while the usual series leads Goku and Vegeta are sidelined, training on a distant planet. Gohan and Piccolo square off against the androids, and are summarily outclassed — until, of course, they power up and transform, and inevitably fend off their foes.
The “Dragon Ball” formula is repetitive and predictable. But it’s difficult to overstate how exquisitely gratifying that formula can be. Dramatic transformations from Saiyan to Super Saiyan — when a hero’s hair explodes into a luminous flare of yellow-gold, and their muscles swell and bulge outrageously — never fail to exhilarate, and recent advances in animation, which combine the style of classical anime illustrations with flourishes of computer-generated effects, have only made every punch, kick and superpowered kamehameha attack more vivid and spectacular. The battles in “Dragon Ball” have always been drawn and staged with thrilling gusto. In “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero,” they look better than ever.
I’m not sure what kind of impression this is likely to make on a series newcomer: The film is clearly intended for fans whose knowledge of these characters and their continuing adventures borders on encyclopedic, and references to the events of earlier films and series in the franchise, from “Dragon Ball” (1986) to “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” (2018), are deployed with casual frequency. But for this critic, who has been following “Dragon Ball” diligently since his teenage years, the fan service only added to the esoteric charm.
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero
Rated PG-13 for cartoon action and violence. In English and Japanese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.