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'Lupin III' jumps to 3D, sticks the landing

by Courtney Lanning | October 16, 2020 at 1:48 a.m.

Almost a year after the movie was released in Japan (thanks, covid-19), I finally got a chance to see "Lupin III: The First." As far as I know, this marked the character's first jump into 3DCG (computer-generated) animation, and hot damn does it look good.

I'll probably always prefer traditional 2D animation to the 3D computer-generated stuff. But that doesn't mean Japanese animation is fated to suffer from jumping to the new medium. A couple weeks back, I finished watching Netflix's "Dragon's Dogma" anime, also done in 3DCG. It was fantastic.

"Lupin III" is one of the oldest and most recognizable anime properties, dating all the way to 1967. The franchise began as a manga (Japanese comic series) and moved on to a popular television series in 1971.

The story follows a group of four thieves, Lupin III (grandson of Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief Arsène Lupin), a sharpshooter named Jigen, a samurai named Goemon and a femme-fatale named Fujiko. They're constantly hounded by a lawman named Inspector Zenigata.

"Lupin III" has spanned countless television episodes and movies. I can't claim to have seen them all (there have been seven theatrical movies and a new television special just about every year since 1989) because they're not all licensed and brought to the U.S., much to my infinite frustration.

"Lupin III: The First" further proves the timelessness of the character. He can fit into several decades from 1960 to today. I've seen the character change through different incarnations from the '70s to now.

The gentleman thief (gentleman used more loosely in some movies than others) is always after some insane treasure, be it gold, an ancient artifact, or even a machine that generates black holes.

Each movie tends to follow the same basic premise: Lupin III decides to try and steal something valuable before a truly despicable villain does. Along the way, he'll usually meet a sweet young girl wrapped up in the story somehow. Fujiko will show up and betray Lupin to steal the same thing he's after. Then Jigen and Goemon will have to bail both of them out of trouble.

Lupin III will say or do something perverted, Fujiko will bat her eyelashes and try to sucker everyone in the room, Jigen will smoke a cigarette and shoot his Smith & Wesson Model 19, Goemon will draw his unbreakable sword and cut something huge, and Zenigata will chase after all them with a pair of handcuffs while yelling, "Lupinnnn!"

You might wonder why I continue to watch this series if it's so predictable, and I'll just point you to the folks who continue to watch 007 movies or Rocky Balboa films. I'm familiar with the characters, and I love their crazy adventures. I'll watch Lupin III as long as they keep making it.

GKIDS licensed "Lupin III: The First" in America (though several companies have licensed Lupin III and brought the series to the west throughout the years, including Funimation). The company was kind enough to send me a review screener. You can catch the movie in some theaters Sunday. In Fayetteville, it'll be playing at Malco Razorback Cinema. In Little Rock, it'll be playing at Cinemark Colonel Glenn 18.

The first thing I noticed as the movie started was how beautiful the animation was. The level of detail put into everything from clothing to an intricate gold diary case was superb. TMS Entertainment and Marza Animation Planet handled the production for "Lupin III: The First," and their work in this movie is easily on par with the latest Pixar movies like "Toy Story 4."

If I was initially worried about how well Lupin III would translate to 3DCG, these (probably underpaid) animators blew my mind and put my fears to rest. All the character designs, backgrounds, and action moved as smooth as silk.

With that said, if there was one weakness the 3DCG had compared to the traditional 2D animation, it's the fluidity of Lupin's high jinks. Here's the thing. Lupin III is part comedy series, and he pulls off all kinds of silly stunts to get away from Zenigata, from dummies and masks to feats of grandeur that would rival Houdini himself. And these high jinks never fail to bring a smile to my face, whether I'm watching them from the 1970s or the 2010s.

Lupin is wild. He bounces all over the screen and gets out of massive police dog piles that would restrain any other man. He defies physics and logic. And that always looked great in traditional 2D animation. But when he tries the same stuff in 3D, it looks more tame and watered down. It's just so much harder to convey over the top action with expressions and body movement when you're using 3D models. The animation almost seemed to take Lupin III down a peg in terms of silly, and I regretted that.

With that said, this movie has everything else a good Lupin III movie needs: gut-busting laughs, clues and puzzles, light-hearted adventure, Lupin's classic (physics-defying) yellow car, Fujiko's sass, and Zenigata's tireless optimism that this is going to be the day he finally catches his arch-nemesis for Interpol. In every other way, it's a classic Lupin adventure, complete with a nonsensical storyline you have to suspend 1,000% of your disbelief to enjoy.

"Lupin III: The First" takes place in the 1960s and follows our classy thief as he tries to crack open the diary of a French archaeologist who died during World War II protecting an old treasure from the Nazis. Hot on his trail is a modern group of Nazis that Brad Pitt just hasn't gotten around to killing yet.

This Lupin III surprised me by being a family-friendly movie (which I can't say for many of the past iterations, which have featured lots of nudity and mature themes). But this isn't "Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo," so if any nerdy parents are looking to introduce their kids to one of the greatest anime series of all time, this one's for you. Next, I'd follow it up with "Lupin the 3rd vs. Detective Conan" because then you can introduce your child to the wonderful "Case Closed" series.

Your children can grow up without the scarring that accompanied our childhoods, where we found stuff at the video rental store like "Ninja Scroll" and thought, "Cool! A cartoon about ninjas!" Oy vey. I was not ready for that.

It's difficult to rank Lupin III movies (including TV specials) when you've watched so many, but I'd say "Lupin III: The First" ranks somewhere in the top 15 (closer to number 15 than number 1).

Lupin's first venture into 3DCG is good. I enjoyed it. But it's nowhere near as good as "The Castle of Cagliostro," which is the greatest Lupin film of all time. It was actually directed by a young Hayao Miyazaki (the most famous name in anime, directing hits like Oscar-winning "Spirited Away").

Other Lupin III films I'd put over this one include "Dead or Alive," "Crisis in Tokyo," and "The Secret of Twilight Gemini."

I'm happy to report "Lupin III: The First" is nowhere near as bad as the worst film in the series, "The Columbus Files."

It probably ranks closer to the middle, somewhere around "The Last Job" or "Goodbye Partner." See? I told you there were a lot of these things.

One detail I really appreciate in this movie is how far Lupin is pushed toward gentleman on the scale of gentleman to pervert. Depending on the movie, Lupin could be a complete degenerate around women (which gets to be a tiresome trope, even for longtime fans like me), or he might be more of the softhearted and charismatic antihero I came to love in "The Castle of Cagliostro."

Some diehard Lupin fans take issue with him being more a gentleman, complaining about his depiction in "The Castle of Cagliostro." And that's fair. That's certainly not the same character Monkey Punch (RIP) created in the 1960s. The original manga is quite different from the popular movies. To each their own, but I like the gentler and more caring Lupin.

The voice actors in Lupin III all did a fantastic job. Then again, the main cast had all played their respective characters before, so this wasn't anything new for them. I should note I watched the dubbed version of this movie, not the Japanese version with subtitles. In the eternal war of "sub vs dub" in anime circles, this gal prefers dubs for most anime (rare exceptions include "Attack on Titan" and "Madoka Magica").

So if the show isn't sold out yet, and you feel safe wearing a mask to your local theater, this is a must-see movie for anime fans, if for no other reason than to prove 3DCG anime can be done well. It's hard to get over how amazing "Lupin III: The First" looked.

And it makes me happy because I know Lupin III still has plenty of mileage left as a franchise. Now if I could just get Funimation or Discotek to freaking license "Lupin III: Prison of the Past." It came out in 2019 for crying out loud. Bring it to America. I promised myself my days of pirating anime were over, but seeing how long it takes to get certain releases in western markets makes it really hard sometimes. Hop to it!


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