Friday, March 28, 2008

REVIEW: One Piece: The Desert Princess and the Pirates

[Article for Toon Zone News - 12.02.08]

It has been said there is nothing more fashionable than being late for a party.

But how late is "late"? Fifteen minutes? An hour? Okay, how about 183 hours? Or, to cast the same number in TV/cinematic terms, how about 343 episodes and 7 movies late?

One Piece, the acclaimed Japanese manga series by Eiichiro Oda, has spawned an anime TV series and more than half a dozen stand-alone movies. Like those earlier stories, The Desert Princess and the Pirates follows the adventures of the Straw Hat Pirates, led by Monkey D. Luffy whose calling is to become the Pirate King as soon as he finds the fabled One Piece. This movie is a retelling of one of the TV series' earlier story arcs, edited down to ninety minutes.

It is also the first piece of One Piece animation I've ever seen.

Yes, I'm that late. So just how fashionable am I?

Fans of the series won't be swayed much but what I've got to say. But a wider audience might glean something useful from the perceptions of this outsider.

This film's plot concentrates on the Straw Hat Pirate crew's involvement in the Alabasta civil war. Cutting multiple episodes down to an hour and a half has required the amputation of several of the Alabasta arc's sub-plots and the sewing together of the more relevant parts into a seamless tale. In other words, this isn't just a lazy cut and splice of storylines. There are additional alterations to some of the original scenes to benefit story consistency. On top of this, I understand that some of the wide CG panoramics were done specially for this film presentation and so were not present in the original episode run. One Piece: The Desert Princess and the Pirates is a film unto its own, and not just a slap and tickle job from a two-bit editing suite.

How does it fare as a stand-alone film? Despite being created to work on its own merits, if you aren't familiar with One Piece it will prove a bit of a struggle to slip into its world. The film offers no information beyond what is necessary to the storyline itself. However, if you just accept the characters as they appear, you won't get any headaches. For the most part, it's a lot of combat or action situations that aren't hard to follow. The lead archetypes should be familiar to even the most casual filmgoer: you'll find your usual spread of protagonists, comic relief, cool anti-heroes, and sweet heroines.

That said, though neither the story nor character types break any new ground, the film's light, airy ambiance, coupled with its odd mix of visual humor and extreme violence, does offer a unique experience. One Piece seems to work best through its quirky but relatable characters and bullet-paced humor. By diluting the violence found in the gratuitous close combat through the saturated use of silly moves and ridiculous physics, the show keeps the action in line with the series' overall tone. It is very much an odd pastiche of comedy, action and drama, carried along by some rather bizarre designs and creative nuances.

The story moves at a brisk pace and avoids getting trapped in too much clunky dialogue (though Luffy's awkward commentary on friendship and death won a wince from this reviewer). Humor is laid on thick and realism kept firmly in the closet. Watch out for the anime favorite: impossible group hurling a singular character up in the air while "in flight." A similar technique was adopted in Final Fantasy: Advent Children.

The traditional 2D visuals are clean and the CG elements are integrated with a fair degree of fluidity. The three dimensional renders of Alabasta do help visualize the complex city and thereby the narrative drive of the story.

Unsurprisingly, there is a choice of English dub or original Japanese, which left me torn. Personally I found that Crocodile's Japanese VA was far more engaging than the English dub, but that Princess Vivi's English dub was far less abrasive than the Japanese. Both tracks carry their own failures and successes. I actually enjoyed flicking between the two, thereby enjoying the benefits of both!

One Piece: The Desert Princess and the Pirates will disappoint both fans and casual viewers in the DVD treatment, however. It's rare for any reinvention to be given such careful treatment and then slapped onto a DVD with no salute for those who put it together. Fans of the show and curious first timers like myself both really deserve at least a feature explaining the history of this release. Personally I'd have liked to have get a commentary instead of a very lazy pack of trailers.

Overall, this One Piece neophyte found the DVD initially a little bewildering but ultimately an enjoyable action affair. It doesn't feel quite as complete a tale as could be hoped for, but given the complex nature of condensing a whole episodic arc into a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end, the result is entertaining, violent and largely satisfying. For fans it should be an interesting re-visit of past adventures with a few changes, extended measures of violence, and CG additions to make it worthwhile.

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