Monkey Punch’s beloved gentleman thief has been an animated icon for decades, giving us oodles of cinematic and small screen escapades. But Lupin’s latest heist is an epic unlike anything he’s done before, and not just because he’s been stunningly realized in a whole new medium.
Lupin III: The First, directed by Dragon Quest: Your Story’s Takashi Yamazaki (which hit Japanese theaters late last year and is now finally heading to the West), marks the very first completely 3DCG animated movie in the franchise. It’s not the first time Lupin has experimented with the medium—but it’s the first time Lupin has tackled 3DCG at such a scale, braving the usual skepticism felt by anime fans when a traditionally animated classic goes 3D.
What adventure is worth that risky jump? The First pitches our titular gentlemen thief (played by Kanichi Kurita in the Japanese original, and by Tony Oliver in the English dub) alongside a new character, the young archaeology student-to-be Laetitia (Suzu Hirose/Laurie Hymes) in ‘60s France. Lupin and Laetitia cross paths when they discover both are trying to steal an important historical artifact: the Bresson Diary.
The Diary, kept under an arcane locking system, purportedly holds the clues to a treasure so valuable it was the target of the Nazis during their occupation of the country in World War II. But when Lupin and Laetitia discover that everything they know about the diary points to a much grander plot—by remnants of the Reich itself, seeking to restore itself to glory—they decide to join forces, alongside Lupin’s stalwart allies Daisuke Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi/Richard Epcar) and Goemon Ishikawa (Daisuke Namikawa/Lex Lang), as well as the mercenary thief Fujiko Mine (Miyuki Sawashiro/Michelle Ruff) and even their usual nemesis Inspector Zenigata (Kōichi Yamadera/Doug Erholtz), to stop the Nazis from getting their hands on a power that could change the world.
Thankfully, like many of the thief’s heists, The First’s leap to 3DCG is a risk worth taking: Marza Animation Planet and TMS Entertainment’s animated spin on the world of Lupin is one of the most breathtaking translations of a typically 2D character to 3D we’ve seen in years. It’s as if Monkey Punch’s manga, or the beloved animated series and movies that spun out of it, leaped into an extra dimension—faithfully keeping the exaggerated aesthetics and movements that have defined Lupin, Fujiko, Jigen, Goemon, and Zenigata across decades of works while rendering them with a fidelity that sits alongside the likes of Spider-Verse as some of the best in the field.
Just like Spider-Verse before it, The First embraces its source material and style even as it adapts it to an unfamiliar medium full of silly sight gags, capturing the way Lupin and his friends dart across the screen with a jangly, kinetic energy. The First feels right in line with Lupin III’s greatest adventures aesthetically. Every frame, from the chase sequences to the spectacle of the third act—an Indiana Jones-esque escalation that allows for absurd stakes and visuals unlike any of Lupin’s past escapades, even at their most fantastical—conveys its love for what Lupin III is, and what it’s always been in its past history on screens big and small. Even the most diehard skeptics of a CG adaptation will have their hearts and eyes melted.
The First’s visual energy is matched by an equally frenetic pace, as it bounces from setpiece to setpiece with barely a chance to breathe over its 90-odd-minute runtime. But when things do take a moment to stand back and lay the scene, the splendor of the visuals is always there, ensuring that you’re never too far from another high-octane scenario that, by the time the film’s reaching its climax, just feels like an animation team that’s flexing on you because it can. Like Lupin himself, The First is a movie that looks slick as hell and knows it.
Splashy visuals could hide a weak story, and while The First might not be the most narratively dense or complex tale that’s been told with these characters, it packs the heart needed to propel its blockbuster visuals. The tale itself is simple fare; Lupin and Laetitia both have to re-embrace the families they’ve found for themselves, the former in his motley crew of fellow thieves and the ever-furious Inspector that hunts them, the latter re-examining herself in light of the revelations about the Bresson diary’s own history.
The First doesn’t need a grand story of twists and turns to hang its dazzling escapades. It’s there when it needs to be, and its themes of unity and family, with a dash of biting one’s thumb at authority, are all intrinsic to the franchise. They’re allowed to shine in The First when they need to and know when to pull back when what you want to see is the heroes leaping into action, performing death-defying escapes, and coming out on top. It gets right to the point with a level of clarity that’s appreciated for its stark simplicity—friends good, Nazis bad, now sit back and enjoy the show: and what a show it is.
In another time, it’d be the sort of gorgeously captured spectacle that begs for a big screen, but The First isn’t worth risking your own safety in a global pandemic to see in its limited-run capacity. It’s an absolute blast and a faithful iteration on the style and scope of these characters in a medium that allows their zany hijinks to dazzle brighter than ever. Just wait a couple more months to enjoy it at home instead, where the Nazi-punching will land just as hard, and the sights will be just as fun to behold.
Lupin III: The First is receiving a limited-run theatrical release this week, before releasing on-demand digitally December 15, and on Blu-ray in standard and steel book releases from January 12. A digital screener was provided for this review.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.