Review

There's a message to the madness of animated 'One Piece Film: Gold'

If you’re under 30, “One Piece” may well be your favorite anime comedy-adventure; if you’re over 30, it’s the biggest franchise you’ve never heard of. Since Eiichiro Oda began the manga in 1999, almost 400 million “One Piece” books have been sold. The TV series has passed the 750-episode mark, there have been numerous specials, video games and light novels, plus a flood of consumer products.

Monkey D. Luffy (voiced by Colleen Clinkenbeard) arrives at the enormous floating casino of Gran Tesoro with the rest of the Straw Hat Pirates: Sanji, Usopp, Nami, Robin, Zoro, Chopper, Brook and Franky. The glitzy architecture of the city-sized ship bears more than a passing resemblance to Las Vegas.

Gild Tesoro (Keith Silverstein) rules Gran Tesoro and presides over the cruel entertainments held in an overscaled amphitheater amid fountains of liquid gold. With the help of his agent Baccarat (Amber Lee Connors), Gild tricks Luffy and the gang into playing rigged games of chance. When they lose, he declares they’ve become his slaves.

As “One Piece” viewers know, Luffy (rhymes with “Goofy”) once ate the Gum-Gum "Devil Fruit," which turned his body into rubber. Bullets bounce off him and his limbs stretch almost endlessly to deliver staggering kicks and punches. His friends and foes have special powers from other “Devil Fruits.” But when the crew tries to fight Gild, he ensnares them in golden tentacles.

Luffy is not the sharpest cutlass in the dead man’s chest, but he’s kindhearted, devoted to his friends and stubborn. He won’t allow the egomaniacal Gild to mistreat anyone, especially his crew. Director Hiroaki Miyamoto pulls out all the stops in the climactic battle that pits the wiles of the Straw Hats against Gild’s glittering technology.

Viewers unfamiliar with “One Piece” may find themselves lost in places, as the filmmakers treat the regular characters and their relationships as givens, with no introductions or explanations. Fans will find the outré settings, bizarre characters, over-the-top fights and slapstick comedy they enjoy. Miyamoto and his artists sometimes get carried away with the CG effects — floods of gold, frenetic tracking shots, fireworks, showers of gold dust — but they wisely maintain the 2-D look of the characters, which the core audience expects.

“Gold” is not the most original “One Piece” adventure: Fans will recognize elements reworked from previous story arcs of the TV series. On the surface, it’s a very silly comic adventure. But beneath the slapstick lies a blunt critique of economic inequality and the contemporary culture of greed. Gild repeatedly proclaims that money is the source of all power and anyone without it exists only to be exploited. Perennially broke Luffy doesn’t believe a word of these declarations and defeats Gild on his home turf.

For viewers accustomed to the upbeat tone of most American features, putting a social message in an animated film may seem as improbable as hiding vitamins in cotton candy. But Japanese animators have confronted economic issues in such recent series as “[C] – Control — The Money & Soul of Possibility” and “Eden of the East.” In some ways, their work recalls the Depression-era message of hope Walt Disney put in “Three Little Pigs” in 1933. Although many people dismiss them as innocuous, a good cartoon, like Luffy, can pack a punch.

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‘One Piece Film: Gold’

Running time: 2 hours

Unrated

Playing: Jan 10, 7:30 p.m., theater information at http://www.funimationfilms.com/movie/onepiecegold/; in limited release, Jan. 10-17

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