Anime fans will probably enjoy “One Piece Film Red,” the latest feature-length extension of manga artist Eiichiro Oda’s popular comic series and, as of this writing, Japan’s highest grossing movie of the year. Everyone else will likely struggle with this particular action-fantasy since most of its singularly appealing qualities — its J-pop score, attractive character designs, and impressive computer graphics — get bogged down by the project’s nature as the 15th theatrically released movie adaptation of a manga series that started 25 years ago.
An introductory “original story” credit for Oda clearly indicates that pre-existing fans are the ideal audience for “One Piece Film Red,” which continues the adventures of happy-go-lucky pirate Luffy (voiced by Mayumi Tanaka) and his misfit gang of spell-casting seafarers. Thankfully, this new “One Piece” movie, which mainly concerns a super-powered pop singer and her misguided plan to destroy all pirates, might also please newcomers thanks to some easy-to-follow backstory and a few propulsive action scenes.
The first half of “One Piece Film Red” exhaustively sets up the basic details of this specific movie’s plot and its immediate circumstances. “The world is amidst the Great Pirate Era,” according to a voiceover narrator, and Luffy and his crew have sailed to Elegia, the Island of Music, to attend a rare concert by Uta (Kaori Nazuka), a reclusive pop singer who casts a magic spell on her audience.
Luffy immediately recognizes Uta, a childhood friend that he hasn’t seen in years. Unfortunately, Uta soon tries to force Luffy and his friends to stay with her forever in a musically themed fantasy world. They try to decline Uta’s offer, but she traps them and the rest of her concertgoers on Elegia. Meanwhile, a battalion of ships circles the island, some of which represent the World Government’s Navy, and at least one of which hosts Red-Haired Shanks (Shuichi Ikeda), Uta’s deadbeat pirate dad. Fortunately, Uta’s music does, in fact, cast a spell thanks to real-life pop singer Ado’s charming vocals and some catchy power-pop arrangements by composer Yasutaka Nakata.
Most of “One Piece Film Red” serves as an overstuffed showcase for its characters, most of whom get introduced like legendary rock stars, but then only selectively re-emerge to say their signature catchphrases or special moves. To be fair, Oda’s manga features some genuinely distinctive character designs, so it makes sense that the series’ creators would contrive excuses to highlight members of, say, the Big Mom Pirates or the Big Heart Pirates.
A few catchphrases and signature moves also quickly establish the appeal of fan favorites like Bepo, a clumsy anthropoid polar-bear/mink hybrid, or Blueno, a sour-faced former villain turned fairweather ally. These characters also get to show off their signature spells and super-powers during action scenes, whose sugar-rush energy often matches the rest of the movie’s relentlessly upbeat energy.
Unfortunately, Uta’s over-arching story proves to be the most underwhelming part of “One Piece Film Red.” Some flashbacks establish how Luffy and Uta are united by their complicated feelings for Red-Haired Shanks, a notorious pirate who abandoned Uta when she was young.
Fans know that Shanks gave Luffy his signature straw hat, but Uta’s connection to Shanks never feels as consequential. She sings and raves a lot about how she wants to end the Pirate Age — “I’m Uta, the woman who’s going to create a new age” — but there’s not much to get about a character who keeps monotonously reminding viewers that she’s cheerful, over-powered and vindictive. There’s a tacked-on backstory concerning Tot Musica, a music-themed demon, but it’s never as interesting nor as well-developed as the movie’s pile-on of joyfully messy allusions to older characters and events.
Ado and Nakata’s music does, however, make Uta sound like a real pop star, as opposed to the polished but underwhelming songs used in this year’s other musically-themed anime features, like “Belle” or “Inu-Oh.” Ado and Nakata’s score not only establishes Uta’s bonafides as a cult-friendly pop favorite, but also injects some much needed energy into the movie’s wildly over-extended narrative, which often lacks dramatic urgency.
Then again, “One Piece Film Red” features much of what fans have come to expect from “One Piece,” especially its breathless pacing and generally high energy. There’s also some welcome, if not always substantial or effective, attempts at ingratiating newcomers by explaining who everybody is and how they’re related, which goes a long way in a story that features small, but key interactions with, say, a Celestial Dragon named Saint Charloss (Chafurin), or members of Cipher Pol, the World Government’s spy agency. These annotations give “One Piece Film Red” a slight edge over other recent anime features based on popular, decades-old manga, like “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” and “Jujutsu Kaisen 0,” but only in that specific regard.
If you’re at all curious about “One Piece,” you might still enjoy “One Piece Film Red”, since it’s a better-than-average highlight reel for Oda’s ingratiating and vividly realized characters. Just don’t feel bad if you exit the theater feeling confused and a little unfulfilled; this new feature’s more of an oversized sampler platter than a full-sized meal.
“One Piece Film Red” opens in US theaters Nov. 4 via Crunchyroll.