It may have taken decades, but Gohan and Piccolo have finally got their own anime movie. For years, we’ve watched the Dragon Ball Z characters sit in Goku and Vegeta’s shadows on the anime series, occasionally helping out or getting a prominent moment. That changes with Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero.
This time, our favourite Saiyan dads are too busy off training somewhere with literal gods to defend the Earth. So, it’s down to Piccolo and his protegé to stave off the Red Ribbon Army, who’ve decided to pick another fight with Capsule Corp, despite how every previous encounter has turned out. Dr Gero’s grandson, Dr Hedo, has architected new androids, the Gammas, at the behest of Magenta, who’s convinced now he has the upper hand.
We won’t spoil anything, but Dragon Ball fans know the likelihood of a Red Ribbon win here. Still, Super Hero is a great animated movie from the pen of creator Akira Toriyama that ushers in the next era of Dragon Ball, and nobody’s been anticipating it all more than the cast.
“The minute I heard that it was a Piccolo-themed story. I was like, ‘Wait, what?'” Christopher Sabat, director of the English dub and voice of Piccolo on Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero tells The Digital Fix. “I’m like, ‘Wait, hold on, Piccolo gets a few minutes, right?’ They’re like ‘No, the whole thing’. So, watching it for the first time was such a fun experience. and they did such a perfect job highlighting these characters that are so beloved by so many people.
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Sabat considers Super Hero a “love letter” to Gohan and Piccolo that highlights their lasting relationship. That’s a fair description: they’re both family men now, Piccolo training Pan and helping out Bulma and Videl, while Gohan continues on his scientific research. Much as it’s always great to see Piccolo flex his muscles, there’s a wonderful comedy series to be gleaned from him playing nanny and stepdad as needed.
Where Super Hero starts, Gohan has been neglecting his training. Part of the film is him learning the same lesson his father once did – being powerful means you’ll occasionally attract challengers. “Well, I knew it was going to be transformative. As dedicated to his work as Gohan is, he has that sense of loyalty to Piccolo,” Kyle Hebert, Gohan’s voice-actor, tells The Digital Fix. “The way the plot plays out, it’s just a natural progression of things. That potential has always been in there, and this has been the perfect opportunity to spotlight that.”
Really, Super Hero is proof that Piccolo’s always been right about Gohan, and along the way, it makes good on the real power dynamics of the franchise. “Gohan was meant to be the strongest character in the show. That’s what we were promised in Dragon Ball Z when he fought against Cell,” Sabat adds. “They’ve never quite taken him there before and Piccolo knows it. Piccolo is fully aware of it.”
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This doesn’t mean Goku and Vegeta don’t show up, they’re just in the animated movie sparingly. That much isn’t necessarily new, since Goku has spent the lion’s share of certain sagas healing or bulking up, but the degree to which he’s minimised was a bit of a shock.
“At the end of Broly, I was expecting Broly Part 2,” Sean Schemmel, who voices Goku in Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, states. “One thing that Shueisha and Akira Toriyama are masters of is pivoting when you least expect it in new and creative ways. This was definitely a welcome pivot, and opened an opportunity to explore the world-building with more depth. These other characters have needed this moment for a long time – Piccolo and Gohan have needed this moment for about 20 years.”
The film does rehash some old ground by having androids as the antagonists, but it’s couched in a fresh, CG-infused aesthetic, and a narrative that explores some grey areas around heroism and the perception of Goku’s many bouts over the years. Dr Hedo and the Gammas are anti-villains who have the best intentions, and they’re naivety makes a sharp contrast from Frieza’s maniacal evil and Broly’s overpowering fury. Super Hero makes its share of creative risks, and new castmates enjoyed getting to put their stamp on Dragon Ball as a whole.
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“I tend to prefer taking on newer characters, as opposed to legacy characters just because they have their own established voices. A lot of the time, those will end up being situations where I’m very inspired by those voices and drawing inspiration, but it feels like the character is owned or established by someone else,” Zeno Robinson, the voice of Gamma 2, told The Digital Fix.
He’s joined in the Gamma tag-team by Aleks Le, who shares the sentiment. “There’s a lot of pressure from fans in general when you’re taking on an established character, to live up to certain expectations,” he says. “So it’s harder to have your own fresh take.”
The Gammas are robots built to be caped heroes, and they have a cartoonish demeanour. One’s more staunch, like Superman, while the other’s got a rebellious streak ala Iron Man. They’re a fun duo that make formidable opponents for Gohan and Piccolo, and Le and Robinson capture their cocky, endearing vibe.
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They came into the industry inspired by Dragon Ball, growing up during the height of the show’s popularity. Being part of it now is something they don’t take for granted. “I’m such a fan of the franchise, the coolest part was fighting Piccolo, because I got to have Chris Sabat’s voice in my ear,” Robinson says. “Like, wow, I’m talking to Piccolo, I’m fighting Piccolo.”
They’re not the only new cast-members excited about the opportunity. Veteran voice-actor Charles Martinet, known for providing Super Mario’s videogame quips, moved into anime for the first time with Super Hero. After years doing Nintendo platformers, he entered an entirely new medium, working with people he’s long admired.
“I think the world of people like Chris Sabat and Sean Schemmel,” Martinet told The Digital Fix. “These guys are masters of their craft, and they’ve been doing it for so many years. It’s so inspiring to me that I started going, ‘Wait a minute, I want to watch more of this’. I really wasn’t familiar.”
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The actors and crew were Martinet’s “safety net” as he plunged himself into Magenta, a xenophobic business mogul who fully believes he’d be doing the world a favour getting rid of Goku. As Martinet explains, like all great villains, Magenta thinks he’s right, and making the audience understand that was the result of hard-working translators who keep context steady across languages.
“First you have the story in Japanese, then people have to perform that and then the writers have to take that writing, and you know, five words for English may equal 18 words in another language or three in another language,” Martinet explains. “They somehow rewrite it and the consistency stays and the director knows everything that’s going before and after and in-between, and the engineer’s got to put everything right so that it works in there. It’s just amazing teamwork.”
In some ways, the process for recording the Dragon Ball dubs remains the same. Ultimately, it’s still the cast recording their lines in swift succession, working against tight deadlines to get the performances right. The internet has made the turnaround even quicker, but that also means the actors get to hear from the community at large more – a welcome source of encouragement.
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“When we were first recording Dragon Ball, we were recording in our own little satellite, in Fort Worth, Texas, just doing our thing with no idea of how this was really, truly affecting people,” Sabat remembers. “We were just trying to do a great job on the show. But over the years, the distance between the fandom, and our production has tightened to where, on some shows, you do some work, and then two days later, you’ll see feedback from your work already on the internet.”
Schemmel speaks highly of having Sabat direct their sessions, beaming with pride as he calls Super Hero “one of the best dubs” they’ve ever done. If over two decades of experience has taught them anything, it’s that voicing Dragon Ball requires a particular level of dedication.
“The universe of Dragon Ball demands this level of love and care and intensity,” Schemmel says. “You don’t really have any choice when you get in the booth, go big or go home. or Dragon Ball will eat you alive. I’ve been able to ride that dragon for a long time and I intend to keep doing so as long as they’ll have me.”
As Sabat says, if something’s wrong, they’ll find out quick enough: “Every time we do this, we know that we’re speaking directly to Dragon Ball fans, and we never want to let them down.”
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is in theatres August 19.