3 out of 5
Directed by: Takashi Yamazaki
If I could just qualify this on how gorgeous and amazing it looks, and less superficially, on how big the Lupin-being-Lupin scenes made me smile, Lupin III: The First would be an all-timer, must-own, must-see. When I saw Hotel Transylvania, I was very impressed by how Genndy Tartakovsky had pushed the CG medium into a stretch-and-squish, classic cartoon realm that, up to that point, hadn’t really been seen – and honestly, besides the sequel, hadn’t been achieved again, at least in the flicks I’ve watched. Lupin III: The First marries this – or rather, marries the reality-bending, slapstick antics of the cartoon – with a masterful balance of uncanny valley and stylization. This is the dream CG adaptation of Lupin, Jigen, Goemon, Fujiko, and Zenigata: they’re given all the weight and emotionality of real people, but are 100% the hand-drawn characters they’ve ever been. Every motion is recognizable, and yet, they are alive on the screen; and yet and yet, when Lupin goes swimming in the air, or contorts up like a pretzel, it’s equally visually immersive. So when these elements meet in some hilariously choreographed chases and heists, it is jaw-dropping entertainment.
The rest of the film – the bits inbetween – is by no means a slouch, giving us a fun mash-up of Indiana Jones globetrotting and Castle of Cagliostro fantasy, but it’s more templated, and has a significant amount of downbeats while it gets us from point A to B. I’d also say the bridge between those mashed up styles isn’t always clean – the movie rather feels like it just shifts at one point. This leaves us in a nexus between really exciting action setpieces: the film either is in perpetual ramp-up mode, or it presents a sense of gravitas it doesn’t feel like its earned.
‘The First’ is set post-WW II, which is a pleasing way to “ground” Lupin in the more old-school vibe of its original incarnations. I’ve enjoyed modern day Lupin quite a bit, but it takes work to modernize the gentleman thief amongst the world’s technology and social media, and so it’s nice to not have to deal with that. It also gives us an easy badguy: dang Nazis. Dang agents of the Reich and Lupin both seek a diary which will lead to some ultimate treasure – for Lupin, that’s riches; for the baddies, that’s power. In the mix is a young girl who’s just trying to earn some independence and freedom – Laeticia, voiced by Suzu Hirose. She’s the relative “innocent” who pings off of Lupin and his gang, and she’s both well written and then perfectly voiced by Hirose, adding to our seasoned Lupin voice cast, all uniformly excellent. The evil dudes, unfortunately (voiced by Kōtarō Yoshida and Tatsuya Fujiwara) fall a little flat: the actual bad guy “plans” are rather nonexistent and these foes not particularly notable, adding to that lull when Lupin’s theme song isn’t playing.
But even when deaths ain’t being defied on screen, or Goemon isn’t grousing about his sword, or Jigen isn’t closing his eyes and sharp-shooting, the beautiful animation – full of some perfect, off-hand touches in the acting – is absolutely easy to watch, helping things along. And just because the treasure hunting structure is rote doesn’t make it bad, it just can’t compare to the heart-stopping hijinx otherwise on display.