Part of what’s kept Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece series so successful and long-lived is the author’s boundless imagination, a sense that anything can and does exist in its world with all its varied characters and environments. One Piece Film: Gold strikes again there with a real treat for committed fans, dropping Straw Hat Luffy and his crewmates straight into a fantastical city-state fever-dream version of Las Vegas. This may not necessarily be the biggest movie yet (One Piece Film: Z lays a strong claim), but it’s certainly the flashiest.
Fans know the drill by now: Monkey D. Luffy aspires to overcome all rivals and voyage to the end of the world’s “Grand Line” to become the true “King of the Pirates,” but many exotic locales and adventures await he and his companions before that goal is to be realized. One such stop along the way is is the fabulous Gran Tesoro, a six-mile-long roaming city on a ship that exists as the ultimate entertainment paradise to the rich, both famous and infamous. Luffy and his trusted companions come aboard expecting a holiday, and even get one for a time as they take in the sights and enjoy seemingly boundless luck at the city’s vast casino. But the greed and the fun end upon their meeting with city leader Gild Tesoro, who baits the excitable Luffy into a high-stakes gamble that leaves the crew owing a king’s ransom.
Their unfortunate fate is in fact Tesoro’s modus operandi, as he and his alluring minion Baccarat are both wielders of Devil Fruit superpowers. Baccarat can manipulate the luck of anyone she touches while Tesoro can manipulate anything gold, which grants him near-unlimited power in his domain since the everything is made of the stuff. Golden dust even permeates the air. Tesoro demonstrates this by detaining Luffy’s swordsman and first-mate Zoro, threatening to execute him and collect his bounty unless the debt of the Straw Hats can be repaid. But Tesoro’s real objective isn’t money but rather the “entertainment” of stripping away the hope of his guests. It turns out his city is kept running by debtors of all ages treated little better than slaves. Rather than trust and submit to such a man as Tesoro, the Straw Hats (led by resident thief Nami) conspire to double-cross and rob him to pay their debt instead — a plan befitting a bonafide pirate crew. Key to the whole operation is Carina, a one-time partner in crime with Nami, who is thoroughly familiar with Tesoro’s operation. But here again the Straw Hats are gambling, both on honor among thieves and their ability to trick a trickster.
As you might expect a great many things don’t go as planned, and this film is ultimately a mix between a heist caper ripped straight out of Ocean’s Eleven (or, if you like, Lupin the Third) and a traditional One Piece adventure where, ultimately, things must be resolved with good old fashioned fisticuffs when all the plotting and machinations and adventuring are finally through. This isn’t to say there’s no substance here though, as the film actually spends less time on action than it does on showing us the spectacle of city in the first act only to show is the ugliness underneath throughout the adventure afterward. Through it all ruminations are had on the foolishness of greed and the shallowness of material wealth, most effectively by a scene where Luffy finds himself in desolate “prison” where many of Tesoro’s more stubborn victims are surrounded by gold but isolated from family, lacking even basic needs. In such conditions, despair is only natural, but as ever Luffy’s characteristic determination to live in freedom on his terms sees him through and inspires others to action. And of course, in Luffy and the captive Zoro, we bear witness to unshakable faith in the loyalty of one’s friends – this is shonen anime, after all!
If the movie has a fault, it’s that it’s a bit too long. Fans will generally conclude that any and all time spent with the series’ quirky and beloved crew members is time well spent, even if it does take over a half-hour for the movie to finish the business of the Straw Hats living the good life. But the film also takes time to set up and include players that could have been excised from the film without meaningfully impacting the core plot, specifically Luffy’s one-time foe Rob Lucci and Luffy’s adopted “brother” Sabo. Lucci is dispatched with a fleet by the World Government to ostensibly pay a “tribute” to Tesoro, only to attack him when his machinations get out of hand, and Sabo gets in his way simply so that Luffy can have his showdown in peace. The entire sideshow comes off as an excuse to have cameos for the sake of having them, most (in)famously when the hated agent Spandam of the Enies Lobby arc makes an appearance just to give Luffy a chance to punch him in the face. Original character Carina is also a mild disappointment. She’s clearly meant to be seen as the kind of trickster Nami was in the old days, but that’s about the extent of it, which leaves her stuck as just the imitation of a character we know and love already. The movie also tries to manufacture tension with backstory about a supposed betrayal that created a rift between them, only to spoon feed us a revelation that robs the subject of all its gravitas. The character would have been more interesting and fun if she’d just been fully embraced as a half-ally and half-rival, thereby offering viewers the same enjoyment derived from seeing Fujiko match wits with the titular Lupin the Third.
As for the action, Toei Animation once again delivers the kind of first class treatment that its evergreen franchise deserves. The final act effectively resembles one prolonged battle fought at a fevered pace on multiple fronts, and out of all the One Piece movies to date this one definitely does the best job at giving most of Luffy’s companions meaningful things to do rather than leaving the “real” fighting to the power trio of Luffy, Zoro and Sanji. It’s of course expected for the heroes to come out on top, but every battle has dynamic action and sufficient time and care to feel like real struggles where every victory is something earned and not just a cheap excuse for a character to show off. In this aspect at least this movie is an improvement on the prior two, which saved this level of intensity only for Luffy’s battle with the primary foe.
Ultimately, notwithstanding some narrative weaknesses, One Piece Film: Gold is another labor of love that continues the positive direction the franchise’s films have taken since Eiichiro Oda himself began having a stay in the storylines starting with One Piece Film: Strong World. The whole affair feels like a lost story arc that could have appeared in comic form, and here again camaraderie and a love of freedom are championed over greed, over despair, and against the totalitarian impulses of a corrupted soul. We’ve seen this all before and more than once in One Piece, but the appeal of it is everlasting.
One Piece Film: Gold will have a limited run in select U.S. theaters January 10 – 17, 2017. You can visit http://www.funimationfilms.com/movie/onepiecegold/ for information about showtimes and availability at theaters near you.