Red looks like a One Piece film but doesn’t feel like one, lazily delivering franchise content without the emotional and visual force necessary to truly animate it.
For my money, few shōnen manga series engineer better dramatic magic than Eiichiro Oda’s magnum opus, One Piece. The pirate-centric fantasy-action story has been running for over two and a half decades, growing both ever more epic and ambitious as it purportedly closes in on its endgame. Its international popularity is undeniable, far and away both the best-selling manga series and printed book comic series in recorded history. Oda has a virtuosic storytelling gift, his narratives nearly always goofily earnest yet emotionally resonant, grandly orchestrated while grounded in the endearing idiosyncrasies of his painstakingly considered settings and ridiculously charming characters. It’s a recipe for a peculiar but undeniably preeminent brand of excellence that’s produced a global juggernaut, the One Piece franchise having generated an estimated $14.5 billion (more than the entire James Bond franchise, for reference).
Out of all its revenue streams, One Piece brings in by far the least amount of money from its films. That’s crucial to note, as assessing a One Piece film in part requires knowledge of its greater financial context. These movies aren’t the franchise’s bread and butter but brand offshoots, audiovisual merchandise more often inclined to hit the familiar beats that satisfy fan appetites than daring to do anything particularly noteworthy within the medium of execution. For that reason, most of the One Piece movies aren’t especially good ones if you’re not already invested in the series. Even if you are, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the modern era of these movies (let’s call it 2012-present) are falling prey to a familiar strain of profit-driven artistic inattention that’s hollowing out much of the Western blockbuster fare American audiences ritualistically return to. To that end, One Piece Film: Red is the latest and arguably the most heavily anticipated One Piece film yet, but beneath its brightly eccentric stylings, it’s not that much more than a weightless, run-of-the-mill romp.
Straw Hat Luffy and his wacky group of pirates sail to see the first-time-ever live performance of global pop music superstar Uta, who the Straw Hat crew learn is a childhood friend of Luffy’s and the daughter of feared pirate Red-Haired Shanks (the man who inspired Luffy to take to the seas). They enjoy themselves, but once Luffy expresses his desire to leave, Uta reveals more sinister designs that cause a rift between the two. Other parties, both pirates and the marines (the military arm of the One Piece universe’s tyrannical world governmental order), are interested in Uta as well, aware that she possesses the power to greatly affect the wider world.
This may go without saying, but if you are not up-to-date with the current events of the series, don’t even bother watching this movie. To be clear, that’s not to say the uninitiated wouldn’t be able to follow along. Red has the simplistic writing style that makes One Piece so accessible, but here the subtleties are diluted to an annoying degree, with the dialogue so often sanded down into either exposition explaining matters longtime viewers already know or the most basic renderings of a given character’s quirks or traits. The story is pretty straightforward as well, plot mysteries not getting unraveled so much by character decisions and consequences than through reveals timed to reduce as much friction to the smooth-sailing experience as possible. Rather, the filmmakers give the uninitiated little reason to care about what is onscreen. Scores of characters from the verse are plopped into the story entirely for cameo purposes, the hope being that fans will be too busy hollering at the sight of their face faults and Devil Fruit powers to notice that beyond the spectacle their inclusions are mostly pointless.
Starting in 2012, with the release of One Piece Film: Z, the One Piece movies began their transition from non-canon side quests centering the dynamics of Luffy’s friends toward ever more thinly-veiled excuses for slickly animated action set pieces with the bare minimum of a story stitching them together. The previous entry, One Piece Film: Stampede, likely cemented this shift, one essentially the equivalent of emptying out your toy box and smashing your action figures against each other. Red ups the ante, with more fan-adored characters from the series at its disposal to be milked for eye candy. If the mindless ardor for today’s Marvel ensembles has you wishing for the end of days, Red’s approach to franchise will only deepen that despair.
Even for the One Piece faithful, Red offers nothing they haven’t seen executed better elsewhere in the series. Not the action, which is often intercut with musical scenes and rendered visually incoherent when it’s not already undercut by uninspiring enemy character design and lack of enemy threat (Luffy is basically the only character who gets remotely injured, mostly due to his principled pacifism in key moments); not the villain writing, as while Uta is a decently sympathetic antagonist, her tragedy is neatly breezed through in economic flashbacks, and the one-note expression of her monomania flattens any of her depth; not the animation, which for stretches barely clears what weekly anime achieves, and mashes together 2-D and 3-D designs at times so ill-conceived and distracting it’s almost embarrassing; and not the worldbuilding, with the country of Elegia looking washed-out and visually monotonous, and it’s sense of history and character virtually nonexistent. What is new in Red is that it’s a musical film, a first for the series, but the solid vocals don’t do much to elevate the hackneyed compositions and stock anime lyrics.
One Piece Film: Red ends up being a tiring exercise, an avalanche of bizarre razzle-dazzle without any emotional groundwork satisfyingly laid out. In other words, this looks like One Piece, but doesn’t feel like One Piece, at least as much as it could. That hasn’t stopped it from becoming the 12th-highest-grossing Japanese film of all time worldwide, proving the cultural salience of the Straw Hats. Whatever the case, Red leaves this longtime One Piece fan disheartened, compelled to stream a superior flick from the canon (looking at you One Piece Film: Strong World) and reminisce about better days.