One of the many events radically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic is the annual Annecy International Animated Film Festival, a showcase for animated movies, television, and works in progress from around the world. This year, Annecy is holding its first-ever online edition, and among the movies in competition is one hotly anticipated by longtime anime fans around the world: Lupin the 3rd: The First, the awkwardly named first CG outing for the gentleman thief Lupin III. It’s a strikingly detailed new look for a set of characters who have always been rubber-faced, heavily stylized, and cartoonish. But the versions of Lupin and his familiar friends and enemies in the new CG movie live up to the high expectations set by decades of over-the-top animated adventures.
Lupin III started out as a 1967 manga series by writer-artist Kazuhiko Katō, under the pen name Monkey Punch. The comic centered on Lupin the 3rd, the grandson of famed fictional French thief Arsène Lupin, created by French writer Maurice Leblanc. Like the original Lupin, his grandson is a master of disguise, a gentleman rather than a thug, and a secret romantic. But Lupin III is also a goofball and a skirt-chaser. He actively relishes his many confrontations with his dogged nemesis, Inspector Zenigata of Interpol. Like his grandfather, Lupin is the kind of criminal who announces his heists in advance to make them more challenging and fun, and to make it even more impressive when he gets away with them anyway.
The manga spawned multiple animated TV series, live-action movies, and OVAs, alongside seven animated films. Most notably, the ultra-charming 1979 adventure The Castle of Cagliostro was the first film directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. (That movie is currently on Netflix, for anyone looking for a Lupin III starting point.)
Lupin the 3rd: The First came out in late 2019 in Japan, and New York distribution house GKids picked it up, planning an American theatrical release in 2020. But with theaters around the country closed, and cinema’s release schedule constantly being rejiggered, it’s impossible to say when the film might open in America. Which is a shame, because Annecy’s preview of the film showcases a series of action and humor scenes that would put Lupin the 3rd: The First among Lupin’s strongest adventures.
The film’s major MacGuffin is a golden, mechanical diary, the work of a reclusive genius who supposedly used it to point to a hidden treasure. Lupin the 3rd: The First opens with a flashback to the 1940s, as the book’s creator attempts to have it spirited away to safety, while a group of Nazis pursue its keepers. In a modern-day sequence, the book is up for auction when Lupin announces his plans to steal it — and almost instantly makes good on that warning. His introduction scene is a flurry of action, as Zenigata and Lupin’s longtime rival and occasional ally Fujiko both get involved, and the book repeatedly changes hands.
Lupin has always been drawn as an elongated character of a man, preposterously skinny, but with big clown shoes and a comically round head. Most of his character comes from his exaggerated but assured body language, and the smirky dialogue that communicates his outsized personality — all roguish charm, playfulness, and arrogance, with a heart of gold under it all. The fully rendered CG version of him captures all of it, right down to his weirdly balletic movements when he’s engaging an enemy. But it adds a level of detail Lupin’s never had before, from the meticulously rendered individual hairs on his head to the faint freckles on his cheeks.
Lupin does look remarkably odd in CG. The little square lines at the corners of his upper lip seem particularly sharp in this kind of depth-focused rendering, and his exaggerated eyebrows make him seem more like a caricature than ever. In Lupin the 3rd: The First, he lacks the warm charm of traditional 2D cel animation, and he trades in his homey handmade quality for a slickness and over-accentuated set of facial textures (tiny beard hairs over freckles over a mild flush over his otherwise pale skin tone) that feel particularly calculated. The problem here isn’t that he’s rendered poorly, it’s that he’s rendered via the same kinds of animation formulas that gave us Gru in the Despicable Me movies, Anna in the Frozen movies, and the human characters in the Toy Story movies, and he somewhat resembles all of them. The quest to achieve lifelike skin and facial movements in digital animation makes all human characters feel a little similar, no matter how different their base models are.
But in motion, he has as much unique dynamism as he ever did. In the opening sequences of Lupin the 3rd: The First, he’s overeager, easily frustrated, and too smug for his own good, all familiar flaws from past adventures. He’s also cheerful and resourceful, with a strong sense of play, an unbeatably quick wit, and the usual ability to switch instantly from indifferent to engaged on a dime when someone’s in danger because of his recklessness. His look has entirely changed, but he’s still the same wild clown of a master thief that he’s been since the 1960s. Judging from Annecy’s preview, his upcoming movie is going to be a lot of fun.