First things first when talking about the original 13 DBZ movies is that they’re not movies in the traditional sense. They each clock in at roughly 45 minutes as they were part of a triple bill with two other anime properties shown during school breaks. They also have no relation to the TV series, timeline-wise, as they were simply fun things to see when you’re not at school. One of my favourite things I did when I watched them first as a teen was work out where the TV series was when these films were made, based on character look, moves and so on, as they never used things from the manga that hadn’t been aired in anime yet (with one sort-of exception in Movie 4, which I’ll get to next time!)
Dragon Ball Z Movie 1: Dead Zone (known in Japan originally as “Dragon Ball Z”, before future movies necessitated a name to separate itself, leading to “Return my Gohan!” becoming the official Japanese title, which itself was a phrase on the back of the VHS release…) was released in July 1989 and was made around the start of DBZ, with only original Dragon Ball-related things and characters appearing, besides Gohan. It’s actually very close to fitting into established continuity in-between DB and DBZ, only Krillin meeting Gohan really stops it from being able to be “canon” (Krillin is shocked to see Goku has a son at the start of Z, which directly leads into Goku’s death, meaning it still doesn’t “fit”).
The plot sees the evil Garlic Jr. (yes… Garlic Jr.) collect the Dragon Balls and wish for immortality, successfully I might add, and look to dethrone the current God / Kami in honour of his father, who was locked in the “Dead Zone” by a former Kami in the past. During the collecting process. his henchmen Nikki, Ginger and Sansho (which is a type of pepper to keep in with the food name theme!) take out Piccolo and kidnap Gohan as he was wearing the Four-Star ball on his hat. Soon Goku, Kami, (who actually fights Garlic Jr. during the film, a very rare thing for the character) Krillin, and a rather angry Piccolo arrive and do battle with Garlic’s henchmen before fighting the lead villain himself (and there is a brief fight between Piccolo and Goku, showing that this is before they found mutual ground in the form of Gohan). There is also a weird musical number as an accidentally drunk Gohan has a weird hallucination while stumbling around… (See below!)
Dragon Ball Z Movie 2: The World’s Strongest (known is Japan as “The World’s Strongest Guy!”, so actually quite close!) was released in March 1990 and was made as the battle with Vegeta and Nappa was airing, meaning we get Goku using Kaio-Ken and the original, much smaller version of the Spirit Bomb, plus Gohan is a trained fighter and sees Piccolo as his mentor. All this means it doesn’t remotely fit into any established timeline, the same as pretty much all the movies don’t from now onwards.
The plot of the film revolves around Dr. Wheelo (Dr. Uiro in Japanese, the rest of the cast remain the same in both versions), who was a genius in his day, but with death via old age approaching he created an assistant named Dr. Kochin who could transplant his brain into a new body. Before the plan could go ahead, a sudden freak weather incident caused their lab to be frozen deep under the ice. Eventually Kochin got free and used the Dragon Balls to melt the ice and free Wheelo, then began searching for a strong body to transplant his brain into. According to their records, Master Roshi is the strongest fighter out there so he gets kidnapped and brought to their icy lair (along with Bulma as a hostage). Of course this data is long out-of-date and the current world’s strongest, Goku, soon arrives, eventually joined by Gohan, Krillin and Piccolo. As per usual with these early films, this leads to some henchmen being killed before a big showdown with the lead movie villain (which in this case is Dr. Wheelo in a large mech-like suit…), although this does have a brief fight between Goku and Piccolo, who is being mind-controlled, and has the added benefit of Master Roshi getting some on-screen action, something that wouldn’t really happen again until Dragon Ball Super episodes that aired this year…
In terms of extras, there is, rather oddly, an audio commentary track for the first film with Garlic Jr. voice actor Chuck Huber and Chris Cason, the director of the English dub and a voice actor in his own right. You also actually get three choices for audio tracks: English dub with new dub music, English dub with the original Japanese music, and of course Japanese with English subtitles. The picture is 16:9 and cropped, although the original film was made in 4:3, it was made with the intention to crop it for the cinema release. The 4:3 releases in the past have shown parts of the picture at the top and bottom where you can see the drawings end before reaching the screen edge, showing how it was always meant to be viewed in 16:9. In other words, this isn’t the same as the “Orange Box” releases we got here, where you really were missing out on some of the picture. For the Blu-ray release the pictures were cleaned up but kept some grain, so it all looks very nice and bright but still authentic (and I just had the DVD copy to review, I’m sure the actual Blu-ray looks great), which is good because these were some of FUNimation’s first forays into Blu-ray back in 2008 (yes, it’s nearly taken 10 years for us to get these…)
So should you buy Dragon Ball Z Movie Collection 1? Well, if you’re a fan of the franchise and haven’t collected the films from another country (or you’re like me and brought the DVD releases from the US ten years ago and are happy to switch to UK region Blu-rays…) then definitely, they’re a fun, small chunk of DBZ action. If you’re not a massive fan, you could still enjoy them; you don’t need to worry about plot or having to set aside some time, just 45 minutes of action each. They’re good little windows into the past of the show and it should be fun to collect them again (not to mention some characters from later releases are still having impact today…)