Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
One Piece: The Desert Princess and the Pirates (Movie No. 8)
Luffy and his tight-knit crew of (mostly) super-powerful pirate buddies has fallen in with Vivi, a princess from the Kingdom of Alabasta on a mission to save her people from the machinations of an evil megalomaniac named Crocodile. A chance encounter with a member of Crocodile's crew who may be impersonating her father sends Vivi and the crew dashing for her desert homeland, where Crocodile's evil plans have the nation teetering on the brink of bloody civil war. Once there they rush to prevent the rebel and royal forces from clashing, but first Luffy's crew of (mostly) super-powerful pirate buddies must contend with Crocodile's own crew of super-powerful pirate lackeys. And ultimately with Crocodile himself, whose ability to manipulate sand (in a desert no less) may bury them all. It's an all-out war of the freaks, with the fate of an entire nation at stake, and before the sand settles Vivi will learn just how much she has come to mean to Luffy & Co., and they to her.
As anyone in the know who can read the title will tell you, this film isn't an original work. And it labors under all the restraints one expects from an abridged feature-length version of a story originally told over the course of ten-plus hours of television anime. Even with eyes blinded by unreasoning affection for the series, it's easy to see how little this film would mean to anyone unacquainted with the story it tells. Reams of plot are left out, sometimes referred to in passing, sometimes not at all. In its effort to squeeze the story's many highlights into a ninety-minute time frame, the story jumps with jarring suddenness from event to event, builds up to conflicts too quickly, trims character development to zero (Crocodile's henchmen are shown for a total of maybe five seconds before they confront Luffy's crew), and pays only lip-service to the events leading to war and the war itself. Anyone who hasn't already seen the story in all its full, drawn-out Shonen Jump glory will find the film, if not insensible, at least un-enjoyable.
And that's exactly the point. This simply isn't meant for newcomers. It's the granddaddy of all clip shows, a feature-length recap with slightly revised editing and a heavy layer of theatrical gloss. This is a film aimed specifically at those with a love of the television series and the time to relive it. And for them, the film delivers. Its creators are too smart to let the film devolve into "the best of the Devil-Fruit Freak Showdowns," including in their retelling highlights from all of the series' many and varied moods. There is plenty of the show at its cool-posing, move-shouting, nose-crunching best, but also amusing little gems such as a desperate bomb-defusing plan that hinges on a heavy blow to the testicles and Sanji in a life-or-death struggle with a reasonable facsimile of Nami's breasts, as well as several of the series' many honest tear-jerkers. Though the minimal context makes them useless to One Piece neophytes, for the fan whose memory of the series remains fresh, those moments will have lost none of their moving power. Just try watching Vivi's final, simple, desperate plea for peace without getting misty-eyed. And the end can still make you feel the power of friendship (don't sic the corn police on me until you've at least watched it) in a way that all of those shonen series that pay lip-service to it only wish they could.
Since the only people potentially interested in this film will be those already familiar with its broadcast incarnation, there's no need to delve into the idiosyncrasies of its unconventional visual style. Anyone for whom this film has any appeal will already be familiar with its grotesquely exaggerated expressions, simple eyes, big mouths and bigger teeth, and with its supremely ugly supporting characters and skinny, gangly-limbed main cast. Suffice to say, it's all amazingly distinctive, utterly appropriate, and surprisingly cool—in a goofy kind of way. Of more interest will be the film's high-gloss take on the original television material. It ain't exactly Satoshi Kon or Mamoru Oshii, but the animation is definitely smoother and more detailed, and the usual contrast of its flat character designs and flashy 3D effects (the final sandstorm is a real stand-out) made all the more distinctive by effects made even flashier by their budgetary boost. The film makes a few embarrassing stylistic blunders—first and foremost, the superfluous freeze frames that punctuate each important development—but is otherwise a pleasant visual experience.
One Piece has always stood out for its use of music, and the series' usual mix of trumpeting pirate bombast, rocking action music, and catchy individual themes is out in full force here. The soundtrack is a joy to listen to, rousing and fun, and is utilized with just the right touch of virtuosic ham-handedness. The removal of the brilliant choreography to Dvorak's 9th Symphony during Luffy and Crocodile's showdown is a letdown, but not a crippling one.
Before getting into the usual dub nitpicking, let's just get this off our chests: Funimation's English dub is light-years better than the 4Kids debacle. It's unusually accurate, professional, and largely enjoyable, which is far, far more than can be said of the previous dub. Most of the cast seems to fit their roles; Christopher R. Sabat is his usual gruff self as Zoro, Sonny Strait makes a fine loser as Usopp, and for the most part everyone else does fine. There is still plenty to nit-pick, however. Colleen Clinkenbeard's Luffy is more a generic spunky kid than a personality in his own right, really coming to life only during the action scenes during which she does a fine job of being darned cool. Crocodile loses his sepulchral charisma, and the original's fine dance on the edge of mawkish sentimentality is disrupted often enough by less-than-stellar acting to dampen many of the more emotional scenes.
Squeezing an enormous plot into a teeny little film like a man in mid-life crisis trying to squeeze into high-school jeans, One Piece trims itself so that the flabby love-handles don't show in its new feature-length duds. The result is more a reminder of times past than a work of art, but given the length of time we may have to wait before an un-butchered version of those times is available, it's better than nothing.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A-
+ A buffet of highlights from one of the television series' best story arcs served with theatrical polish and no "One Piece Rap".
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