It must be tough to be a member of the Straw Hat Pirates. For, when do you ever get a day off? You spend 364 days of the year following rubberband man around, in his neverending obsession to find the One Piece. So on day 365, the gang decides to spend it at a concert – performed by Uta, currently the most popular artist on the planet. But then said concert gets hijacked by a dispute between the many pirate-hating citizens on the island, against the dozens of pirates in attendance. This is why we can’t have nice things – can’t even go twerk at a festival without violence breaking out. But that is the cruel fate of the pirate – hated for all their misdeeds, and rest assured the average citizens of One Piece don’t discriminate. All Pirates are Public Enemy No. 1, and it’ll take a valiant effort from Luffy and the Straw Hats to show there’s some good people in this cruel profession.
Which positions One Piece Film: Red as something of an easily digestible re-run. We are playing the hits here to establish the movie as an easy barrier of entry for new fans. If you know One Piece, many of the beats here are so familiar you’ll probably recall the specific arcs where they were done best. But if you’re new, Red acts as a summation of the franchise: richly colorful, brazenly sophomoric, featuring breakneck action and some moments of unexpected melodrama. The plot thickens when Luffy embraces Uta, onstage for the entire crowd to see. The Straw Hats are shocked, for Luffy has never mentioned that he and the pop star are childhood friends, and that she’s the daughter of Luffy’s idol – the legendary pirate Red-Haired Shanks. But something’s amiss – Uta doesn’t know her father’s whereabouts and is desperate to find him. There’s also the matter of why Uta hasn’t seen Shanks or Luffy in so long, the father-daughter split from years ago happening under dubious circumstances.
This is the setup for what is a fun time, but also a bizarre story on regrets, sacrifices, and things left unsaid. Yet, what propels Red to fun popcorn entertainment is its strong animation and timely visual gags. Uta’s concert makes you want to be there in person. Like, she’s literally flying around and singing. She has a giant guitar that she uses to capture unruly guests. There’s an incredibly fun moment where the lights go out and all you see are glow-in-the-dark objects, and it’s the most realistic version of this concert trick that I’ve seen in a movie, including live-action attempts. I don’t even think anybody on the island got up to go to concessions, the concert is that good.
I usually don’t like it when a character tries to solve a problem through song. In fact, I’m more likely to root against the character when this happens, but Uta makes it work. Voiced by Amanda Lee for the English dub, however the songs still remain in Japanese, powered by dynamite performances from real-life pop star Ado. The sound in the theater is incredible, and it’s the implementation of the musical numbers which make up the best parts of the movie, as some of the standout numbers include Backlight and Tot Musica. Ado’s performance vacillates perfectly between cheerful and sweet, to later angry or remorseful. A few of the songs are reminiscent of another anime – the Death Metal comedy Aggretsuko. This film isn’t getting nominated for any Oscars, but if it did then sound mixing would be the category. However, the musical numbers do get a bit tiresome as the runtime builds because she does sing A LOT. I was getting flashbacks to Cynthia Erica in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).
The presence of Ado, overall, can only take the movie so far, as eventually the plot needs to show its cards. The movie’s dismantling of celebrity worship, and the mental health issues hidden behind the veneer of sugary pop excess is a compelling thread. It makes a good companion piece to Belle, which touched on similar issues. There’s also threads about exhaustion, sleep disorders, and never relenting from your mission. Perhaps it’s better for all of us to enact a little self-care, lest we take our aggression out on those closest. It’s an interesting narrative on how celebrity worship can actually be very isolating. Where the movie begins to struggle is in some of the reveals and reversals. Some of which, you’ll be able to see coming a mile away. But to me that isn’t the issue; rather what sticks out is how repeatable some anime tropes are. The sad backstory, the unknown side of the story, the bitterness that fuels the antagonist because they were so heavily wronged. It seems to be a similar stew, applied to the pot in the same order, again and again.
Moreover, so much of the screentime is dominated by the two leads, you can often forget the Straw Hats are even there. Every once in awhile they’ll let Zoro and Sanji punch and stab something. Usopp gets a funny callback near the end, but then you wonder when was the last time you heard his voice other than the opening minutes. Robin and Nami are kind of just given busy work to do. There has to be a better way to incorporate these large groups into a story. We know Luffy is our main character, but at times Red reaches Dragon Ball: Super levels of minimizing its side characters.
“Yes, only Goku and Vegeta matter. The rest of you losers can sit on the bench and talk about how great the Saiyans are while Beerus eats chocoflan.”
The ending fight scene, while very expensive looking, is somehow simultaneously too busy but also too static. The characters themselves appear stiff in this scene, not given any dynamic actions to showcase the novelty of their powers. Yet, the screen is obfuscated with so many colors and debris that you begin to become numb to it. We know One Piece can do better fights than this, where’s the choreography or the style? When you have this many powerful characters together, some of which are a making a rare appearance, they should battle something a little more formidable than a shield. Also, can we nail down the correct pronunciation of the island Elegia? Some characters are saying “Ah-lee-gia,” others are saying “Ah-ledge-ia”, the dubbed strikes again!
Ultimately, Red is fun as hell. The best way to describe it is it’s a good hang. But it’s not representative of the best the series has to offer. It’s a bit too long given the thin plot, and the story is a little convoluted and predictable. But you’ll laugh and you’ll be dazzled by some of the movie’s gorgeous animation. It certainly peaks early, as the second half runs out of steam in comparison to the first hour. Rare for a live show, where the opening act is what we remember most.