Lupin the Third began as a blockbuster manga series in 1967, itself a kind of unofficial successor to Maurice Leblanc’s stories of the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, published in France in the early 1900s. An adventurous burglar, whose near constant irreverence carries him through the most ridiculous of stories, it is no surprise that Lupin has become such a recognisable and influential figure. Though to Western audiences, his most iconic appearance may not even be due to his presence, but the talent behind the scenes. 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro, a delightful anime adaptation of Monkey Punch’s manga marked the first feature film from Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki and arguably set the stage for his future films and the incalculable influence of Ghibli.
But that was 40 years ago and both the adventure genre and animation as a medium have come a very long way. Lupin III: The First represents the character’s first venture into 3D CG animation as well as his first animated film appearance since 1996, and despite everything that has changed, that same appeal proves absolutely timeless. The film is incredibly good fun and in a landscape where Hollywood is seemingly scared of traditional adventure movies it is all the more exciting to see such an unashamedly joyful romp in that tradition.
Lupin III: The First happily throws fans back into that familiar world, taking little time to reintroduce its characters beyond an incredibly entertaining initial heist scene that should give most audiences a good idea of who’s who and roughly what they’re about. Less context is provided for Lupin’s travelling companions Jigen and Goemon, who receive less of an introduction but it doesn’t take long until they click into place. The biggest new introductions here are Laetitia Bresson, the granddaughter of an archaeologist who worked with Arsène Lupin the first, and the film’s villains; a group of Nazi loyalists tracking down an aged Adolf Hitler to offer him a magical superweapon. Not a typo.
Despite the weight of its new stakes, Lupin III: The First is incredibly good fun, its plot is structured around a series of increasingly ridiculous mysteries and setpieces that Lupin and friends make their way through with an almost slapstick edge. Its animation, though new for the series, feels like an absolutely common sense development for the franchise and will hopefully serve to draw in new fans too. The film also takes a more classical, noir influenced approach to its story that creates a timeless and approachable atmosphere and in general there is as much shared DNA with Indiana Jones or Spielberg’s Tintin as with Lupin’s own stories, Tintin’s transition into both 3D and the modern world especially feeling like a major influence. This blending of stories that dates all the way back to Lupin’s original design being inspired by James Bond is signposted from the very beginning as the film opens with a credits sequence that feels like the middle ground between an anime opening and a Bond title sequence. The effect is a sense that even to unfamiliar audiences, the film has plenty recognisable to grab onto and that the adventure of this film is worth taking that chance.
There is an undeniable level of urgency provided by the film’s villainous association with the Nazis and that is something it impressively does not shy away from, making reference to real world conspiracy theories about Hitler being alive and informing its conflict with an acknowledgement of real world atrocities committed in their name. This tension drives the film’s drama to new heights and it’s an impressive balancing act that manages to not feel either exploitative or weighed down. Lupin’s position as a thief with a strict moral code is rigorously reinforced as we watch him put saving the world ahead of anything else without a second thought.
Lupin III: The First is an incredibly charming movie that offers something for both longtime fans and new audiences. Its animation is not the franchise’s only development as there is a very clear parallel growth alongside the adventure genre itself that results in a classical feeling movie that embodies the kind of swashbuckling action Hollywood has shied away from in recent years. As a franchise founded on slightly legally questionable inspiration it feels like a natural evolution to once again take the best parts from the genre it belongs to and build on them to create something charming and new.