The Red Ribbon army arc finds Dragon Ball at its peak, at a pleasant mean between the frivolity of early Dragon Ball and the ponderous solemnity of Dragon Ball Z. Here the series is light and funny, yet serious enough that it doesn't feel insubstantial. It may be little more than a diversion, but it's an eminently enjoyable one.
The seriousness comes from the Red Ribbon army itself. While composed of incompetent dogs and equally incompetent people (and tigers, and walruses, and...), they're a genuinely nasty bunch. Nasty enough that they sometimes feel distinctly out of place in Dragon Ball's dippy fantasy world. They enslave, beat and kill locals unfortunate enough to live near a dragon ball, and their tactics for dealing with Goku grow increasingly ugly and extreme as his threat to their organization grows. It's the first time Goku has faced real bad guys as opposed to Team Rocket-esque wannabes like Emperor Pilaf - and the tone of the series reflects it. Naturally, this being children's anime (and don't fool yourself, it is), the Red Ribbon meanies always get their just desserts, but unlike previous villains, their just desserts sometimes include outright death, an extremity of punishment that once again feels out of place.
Never fear, though. Akira Toriyama isn't about to abandon his beloved gags, and increasing and occasionally incongruous seriousness aside, Dragon Ball remains a very funny series. This is the kind of show that has no qualms about sticking a power pole up a ninja's butt and then having him jump around on all fours yelping as Goku points and laughs "Now you've got a tail too!" Vulgar, yes, but hilarious too. The whole ninja fight in general is an exercise in Looney Tunes insanity, and the show has a grand old time yukking it up with Master Roshi's perversion (his adventures with Bulma's human-shrinking device being a highlight) and the further antics of its expansive cast. Even the Red Ribbon army comes in for its share of comic drubbing. It is, after all, led by a red-headed, cigar-chomping midget.
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