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Almost twenty-three years after its original release, Toriyama’s beloved one-shot finally makes it on the big screen. I went into the premiere with a blank slate since I hadn’t visited the one shot in over a decade when it was published in Shonen Jump. Though, sitting alongside a rowdy Friday San Diego Comic-Con audience set my expectations sky-high. Coupled with the announcement of Sand Land‘s video game, it’s clear the movie intends to launch the start of a new, booming franchise.
Having seen the assets for the upcoming video game, I was excited to see how different the art style would translate into a theatrical film. The audience at the convention was the first in the world to see the movie, even ahead of Japan, so I was also curious to see how fans (specifically Dragon Ball ones) would react. Thankfully I joined in their revelry as the film wastes no time showing off the central characters and the world of Sand Land within the movie’s first ten minutes. As his debut theatrical work, director Yokoshima makes good use of the limited ninety-minute runtime and cleanly balances the story progression and character development.
After years of watching Toriyama’s other series, I’ve become accustomed to tempering my expectations for a high-stakes story. That said, the camaraderie between Beelzebub, Rao, and Thief makes up for the lack of plot urgency. Two demons and a war-beaten sheriff make an unlikely trio, but the quips and jabs between them help illustrate their bond’s development. Further, the overarching pensive mistrust between humans and demons in their interactions expands throughout the movie. Yokoshima maintains focus on the most pertinent aspect of the source material—the characters, both big and small—and never wavers. He also has a penchant for translating Toriyama’s brand of humor on screen, exemplifying his appreciation and understanding of the author’s original vision.
Undeniably, the script is the movie’s strongest feature. For a story that touches on the impacts of war, global warming, and corporate greed, it never overcomplicates the message, nor does it talk down to the audience. Under Yokoshima’s supervision, Mutsumi Tamura‘s entertaining take on Beelzebub and Cho’s spry voice as Thief hits the perfect middle ground between spunky protagonist and loyal retainer. Kazuhiro Yamaji‘s hardy voice fits right in as Sheriff Rao, whose complex character shines through his sanded-down vocal cords. Together, their dialogue supplements the details of the story’s historical tension and individual motivations without the overuse of exposition.
There’s a moment where all the remaining loose ends come together under Rao rather than Beelzebub, which surprised me. It’s rare for the main character to take a backseat within the story and have the deuteragonist shine as brightly as Rao. He’s the only character that undergoes full development and fulfills the cycle of healing from his trauma. Even minor characters like the Swimmers stand out as crowd favorites with their humorous delivery. Having Tomokazu Sugita voice the Swimmers’ Papa further highlights that point.
In addition, the guitar riffs and synths playing in the backdrop of the desert wasteland are reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road. Yūgo Kanno‘s ear for intense leitmotifs calls for the audience to witness the gravity of the trios’ adventure: an exciting but important journey to find a water source. With his composition, he transforms and heightens the intensity of overly animated scenes. At the same time, the music exposes the weakness of certain action sequences. Although there aren’t any extended fight scenes, I hoped for more than just a one-two punch or kick from Beelzebub.
There weren’t many moments for the smooth animation from Kamikaze Douga to shine outside of the signature tank’s mechanical movements. Frankly, the movie spent too much time showing off spinning camera angles for the characters during mundane dialogue. Even the pivotal showdown scene between Rao and his old commander felt lackluster compared to the one-take 360 of the main characters merely talking to each other.
Sand Land starts with a beautifully designed, exciting search for water and concludes with an optimistic outlook. Building on their well-developed friendship, the story’s protagonists continue to work towards a better future even after the post-credits. The short “That’s all Folks” scene at the very end provides a brief epilogue that closes the loop on the leftover energy from the third act’s last rowdy battle. The simplicity of the plot’s black-and-white morality leaves no room for further nuanced character exploration, but the desert’s expansive world opens the possibility of more stories.