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Review: ‘Lupin III: The First’ is a fun 3DCG adventure where an anime icon beats up Nazis

An animated man tipping his top hat
Master thief Lupin takes on a 3DCG heist in “Lupin III: The First.”
(© Monkey Punch / Lupin the 3rd Film Partners)

During an early scene in “Lupin III: The First,” the titular master thief declares thieving isn’t something you do half-heartedly. That Lupin relishes being who he is and doing what he does is part of the character’s enduring charm.

Created by Japanese artist Monkey Punch, Lupin III has been heisting treasures and captivating fans for decades. The original serialized manga following the adventures of the roguish grandson of Arsène Lupin (the fictional gentleman thief appearing in stories by French novelist Maurice Leblanc) launched in 1967, with its first TV anime adaptation debuting in 1971.

The franchise has grown to include multiple TV series, spinoffs, films, TV specials, video games and more. Among the best known is the 1979 film “The Castle of Cagliostro,” the great Hayao Miyazaki’s feature directorial debut. (Years before they founded Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki and Isao Takahata worked on episodes of the “Lupin III” TV anime.)

With his long history, it’s fitting that Lupin’s first 3DCG feature is about legacy.

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In “Lupin III: The First,” Lupin (voiced by Kanichi Kurita for the original Japanese and Tony Oliver in the English dubbed version) has his sights set on the Bresson diary — an item that eluded his famous grandfather’s grasp. During the initial heist he encounters Laetitia (Suzu Hirose; Laurie C. Hymes), an aspiring archeology student, who is also after the artifact.

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Kept under an intricate locking mechanism, the diary is said to be the key to locating a mysterious treasure that Bresson, a professor of archeology, was trying to keep from falling into the hands of the Nazis during World War II. The film’s opening shows the professor sending his family away with the diary and key just before Nazis arrive at his home.

Lupin and Laetitia soon learn there is more to the story than they thought, so they join forces in an attempt to prevent the Nazis from obtaining the one thing that could help them regain power to terrorize the world.

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Some animation fans are vocal in their skepticism about beloved hand-drawn characters making the transition to 3DCG, but “Lupin III: The First” writer-director Takashi Yamazaki once again shows he is up to the task. Previously, Yamazaki wrote and codirected 2014’s “Stand by Me Doraemon,” the award-winning first 3DCG feature for another iconic Japanese character, which was a box office hit.

“The First” is a zippy 93-minute comedic adventure that embraces all the familiar building blocks of classic “Lupin III” stories: impressive car chases, impeccable disguises, impossible escapes and Lupin taking on an evil organization. And there are clear nods to “The Castle of Cagliostro” visually and within elements of the story itself.

The 3DCG beautifully retains Lupin’s established aesthetics, including his distinct elastic movements and signature smirk, and it also helps to convey the full stakes of the film’s kinetic action sequences, particularly in the aforementioned car chases and trials in mysterious ruins.

Lupin’s longtime allies — sharpshooter Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi; Richard Epcar) and swordsman Goemon (Daisuke Namikawa; Lex Lang) — are along for the ride as well as his friendly rivals Fujiko Mine (Miyuki Sawashiro; Michelle Ruff), a fellow thief, and Inspector Zenigata (Kôichi Yamadera; Doug Erholtz).

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The film’s focus is Lupin and Laetitia, so these supporting characters and their dynamics might not be fleshed out enough for those new to the “Lupin III” franchise. Fans, however, will appreciate the moments each of them get to shine. That said, the film overall feels accessible for those checking out “Lupin III” for the first time.

The story is straightforward, as can be expected from a family-friendly caper, and most of the turns are predictable, but it doesn’t make the movie any less fun. Plus, even though the film does not get into any real details about the Nazis, because of the political climate in the U.S., there is something particularly satisfying about seeing Lupin and his friends beating up Nazis and taking them down.

The film also touches on bigger themes about family and how we can’t fight who we are. The tinge of biological determinism in how the message is presented is uncomfortable in the context of Nazis, but the idea of embracing who we are and not denying ourselves the opportunity to pursue what we want to do is something we can celebrate.

The strengths of “Lupin III: The First,” however, are its visuals and its numerous dynamic action elements. Even 3DCG skeptics should consider giving the movie a chance.

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'Lupin III: The First'

In both Japanese with subtitled English and dubbed English versions

Rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: In limited release where theaters are open; available Dec. 15 on VOD


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