Eye-popping action steals the show in “Lupin III: The First,” the first computer-animated feature entry in the classic franchise about the French gentleman thief and master of disguise. Casting the hero as an Indiana Jones-like adventurer tussling with Nazis to unearth an ancient scientific invention, visual effects wizard Takashi Yamazaki has pulled off another hit since directing “Stand By Me: Doraemon,” stoking the nostalgic sentiments of fans with a classy ’60s setting, while seducing a new generation of younger viewers with the slickness and flexibility of 3D technology.
As mainstream entertainment on a par with big-budget Hollywood studio fare, the animation will have no problem breaking into the international family market. However, the unflaggingly perky caper has no down time, so one can’t help wishing for more the laid-back gamesmanship and boyish banter of the older renditions.
Kazuhiko Kato, under the pen name Monkey Punch, created his character in 1967, as the grandson of Arsene Lupin, the hero of Maurice Leblanc’s novels. He persevered with the manga series until 1991, spawning a collection that encompassed 27 TV specials, six TV series, eight theatrical features and more. Although Kato passed away in 2019, he involved himself in this production since 2015.
Yamazaki entered the industry making animated TV series, and already directed three 3D animated features (“Friends Mononoke Island Naki,” “Stand By Me: Doraemon” and “Dragon Quest Your Story”), of which “Doraemon” broke B.O. records in Japan and China. Moreover, Yamazaki’s reputation was founded on his ability to concoct a rosy facade of bygone eras with cutting-edge CGI in live action blockbusters “Always: Sunset on Third Street” and “The Eternal Zero.” Setting this film in the early ’60s not only plays to his strengths, but also preserves the ambience of the original in architectural, vehicular and panoramic designs, emulating the intense and vibrant color schemes of post-war French-Belgian bandes dessinées.
There’s a sought-after object in every Lupin III escapade. This time, it’s French archaeologist Prof. Bresson’s diary — the only thing Lupin’s grandfather couldn’t steal. Protected by an impregnable lock, it disappeared when Bresson’s family was pursued by Nazis in World War 2.
A decade later, the diary resurfaces at the Musée de Paris. It’s a gallant ritual of Lupin III (Kanichi Kurita) to send a note announcing his game, prompting his nemesis, Interpol agent Zenigata (Koichi Yamadera), into frenzied alert. A grand entrance is staged in elegant, showstopping style, from chandelier gymnastics to a rooftop chase, all with breathless balletic grace that also reveals period Parisian cityscapes in romantic splendor.
Lupin charms security guard Laetitia (Suzu Hirose), only to be doublecrossed by her, then triple-crossed by Fujiko Mine (Miyuki Sawashiro), his on-off fling and foe. Laetitia, an aspiring archaeologist, is controlled by her grandfather Prof. Lambert (Kotaro Yoshida) and Geralt (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who belongs to scientific society Ahnenerbe (founded by Heinrich Himmler). As she lures him to Lambert’s airborne lair, the film hits its stride evoking Lupin’s suave charm as he flirts and fights with equal playful ease.
Whenever there’s a car chase or setpiece atop dramatic heights, the mood soars, as when the protagonists leap from plane to plane, then dive from the sky into a coupe’s sunroof in one vertiginous, unbroken move. Yamazaki’s propulsive direction of dogfights in “The Eternal Zero,” his war epic about kamikaze pilots, definitely informs the dynamism of these stunts. The director also acknowledges his love of and debt to Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Castle of Cagliostro,” and these scenes also fondly reference it.
It’s therefore a letdown when the cast converges in Mexico, where their escapades become derivative of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The sci-fi mumbo-jumbo about an Aztec generator of infinite energy, micronized black hole and Third Reich revival strain to be taken seriously, belying a screenplay which Yamazaki reportedly revised a dozen times in response to focus groups.
For the first time in his career, Yamazaki swapped his longtime collaborator, CG and visual effects powerhouse Shirogumi with Marza Animation Planet (“Sonic the Hedgehog”). The resulting aesthetic and pace are closer to video games and Hollywood animation. Clearly, a lot of work went into the motion capture to make exaggerated movements look smooth and realistic, rendering Lupin’s ape-like dexterity more pronounced.
Voice actors are the same ones who have served the franchise for decades, which no doubt puts Japanese fans at ease. However, no effort is made to enrich the roles of Lupin’s sidekicks Jigen, Goemon or Fujiko beyond the functional. Laetitia, whom Yamazaki admitted was influenced by Clarisse, the heroine of “Cagliostro,” is still a conventional innocent and gullible beauty, despite being afforded some agency through her archaeological knowledge.
The entire project is aided by an effervescent jazz score from Yuji Ohno, jazz pianist and composer of numerous “Lupin III” outings. Music and theme song evoke both Gallic lightness and brassy gaiety of Japanese “Showa” post-war movie scores.