Dragon Ball may well be the pivotal series in opening the West up to anime in the 1990s. Even if you’ve never seen a page of the manga or an episode of one of the series, odds are you’ve seen Goku’s spiky hair, caught a reference to Super Saiyan transformations, or heard some otherwise inexplicably passionate reference to the number 9000. But let’s say you’re one of those people who haven’t read or watched Dragon Ball. You may feel too intimidated to start. There are hundreds of manga volumes and even more episodes of four different TV shows to plow through. If only there were a way to get a taste of what the characters and the action are like without overloading on too much story.
That’s where the Dragon Ball movies come in. Released alongside the two initial anime series, the original run of films existed outside the continuity of Akira Toriyama’s story, presenting Son Goku and friends in standalone tales that rarely ran over an hour. Each movie broadly reflected the state of things in the series at the time without the baggage of the ongoing narrative. Since Dragon Ball’s revival through 2013’s Battle of Gods, the films have tied directly into Toriyama’s story, but can still be seen and comprehended on their own.
Here are our rankings for the theatrically released animated Dragon Ball films:
Editor’s Note: This piece was last updated on August 21 to add Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero
Super Android 13! (1992)
In fiction, it’s often a greater sin to be boring than bad. There are no great technical flaws about Super Android 13!, but this is about as generic as a Dragon Ball movie can get. There’s very little here to give newcomers a sense of what Goku and his friends are like as a cast, the action is uninspired, gags and plot points are recycled from earlier movies, and the villains are forgettable. Even as a snapshot of what was going on in the series at the time, Super Android 13! falls short; it’s meant to represent the Android/Cell arc, a storyline that owes much of its charm to the twists and turns in its narrative, and this movie has none of that. If you’re going to give any Dragon Ball film a pass, make it this one.
Resurrection “F” (2015)
Like many a Dragon Ball fan, I consider Freeza the series’ greatest villain. But one of the reasons he’s great is that his story has a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. There was no good reason to bring him back to life, and if he had to come back, setting him on a revenge quest was an uninspired option. It’s still astonishing, however, just how devoid of tension this movie is. A torturously long build-up results in a fight that no one seems to take very seriously except for Freeza. I started feeling sorry for him towards the end thanks to how inconsequential his return proved to be. But if you like Super Saiyan Blue, here’s where it debuted. And Resurrection “F” was later adapted into the second storyline of Dragon Ball Super to…some improvement.
The Return of Cooler (1992)
Most of the Z-era Dragon Ball films didn’t just stand apart from the series, but from one another as well. The Return of Cooler was one of the few direct sequels, following up on Cooler’s Revenge the previous year. It combines elements of the Freeza and early Android arcs for a sci-fi heavy battle on New Namek as a freshly metallicized Cooler attempts planetary absorption. On paper, that’s more interesting than another revenge mission. In the final execution, some lackluster animation and bare-bones storytelling drain away most of the potential oomph of the premise. There isn’t much of a reason for this to be a sequel, either; the villain could have been anybody. On the other hand, The Return of Cooler is the first time fans got to see Goku and Vegeta team up as Super Saiyans to win the day, and at this point in the series, that was still an unsteady and exciting alliance.
Sleeping Princess in Devil’s Castle (1987)
The first three Dragon Ball films offer an alternative timeline. Each retells Goku’s first encounter with at least one of his close friends, and the major events coinciding with those encounters. In the case of Sleeping Princess and Devil’s Castle, we’re given a new version of how Goku meets Krillin and how the two of them come to study under Master Roshi. The task he sets them – to rescue the titular princess from the titular castle – has some fun twists to it, and the boys get a decent amount of space to banter, bicker, and gradually become friends. The film has some nice Gothic flourishes in its production design too. But the pieces never quite gel into a pleasing whole; the pacing is off and the subplots with the supporting cast are more of a distraction than a complement to the main action.