Note: I will attempt to remain spoiler-free as much as possible but note that if you have not seen the film some minor spoilers may follow.
One Piece Film Red is a bombastic film that manages to spin a fun yarn in an interesting setting. Whether that rates as a strong showing or run-of-the-mill meh will depend greatly on how you feel about tie-in movies like this.
Shonen action-adventure series have a strange relationship with movies. Many of them are non-canon, fun side adventures that don’t necessarily have to exist anywhere in the established timeline. These are often exciting romps that deliver what the series is all about in a shorter time frame without needing lots of buildup or lore knowledge. Other films explore previously underserved areas of the narrative, acting as prequels or side stories that illuminate the main events of the series proper with characters who might otherwise not appear. Then there are those canon films which star the main cast and attempt to, well, just add to the story of the hero(es) as we understand it. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, and a big part of being a fan of these series is the community squabbling over which films are the best or worst and so forth.
One Piece Film Red sort of tries to be all these moods at once. I think it manages to do so quite successfully, but in part that has to do with where One Piece is at as a series. Much like Stampede, I wonder if Film Red’s legacy will change over time.
Ultimately, this is Uta’s movie. How you feel about the film and the enjoyment you get out of it will depend almost entirely on whether you enjoy Uta. She is the literal and figurative star of the show, taking up much of the screen time and getting all the big emotional beats throughout. The whole film rides one whether you respond to he as a character.
Given how unique she is, that may be challenging for some viewers because Uta is a pop star first and foremost. One Piece has certainly had musicians and sound-based characters in the past, but Uta is a step beyond that. Uta is an idol, with all of the focus and energy that entails, which is wholly different from, say, the way Brook is a rock star as an off-screen time skip activity. Uta has highly detailed choreography, legions of raving fans, and carefully orchestrated design elements. She has emerged fully-formed and ready to be adored, plugged in to Luffy’s backstory in a way few other characters are and put on a pedestal almost instantly.
Which is all to say that I hope you enjoy what is essentially an anime music video compilation, because there is a lot of music here. Uta sings as she fights and fights as she sings, doing meticulously choreographed dance moves while summoning magical armaments to do battle with. For some folks this might be a bridge too far, but for myself I think it largely works with a few caveats.
First of all, there’s a long-standing tradition of this sort of thing in anime. I grew up on Robotech/Macross, so pop idols and over the top action scenes are a classic pairing in my eyes. Uta’s unique approach to fighting makes her both more and less powerful than many other Devil Fruit users at the same time. It’s a tough needle to thread, trying to balance how can she be a threat to the Straw Hats without undermining the power of many of the team’s prior foes, but I think the team largely nails it. And it’s also not out of bounds for a song-based opponent to challenge the team – think Big Mom and her sing-a-longs – I think it works, especially given the genre change to more of a pop idol vibe.
The issue for me is that I can’t tell whether I’m falling into what I’d call the Stampede trap. See, One Piece Stampede was a big deal when it came out, with jaw-dropping visuals and the potential for seeing lots of my favorite characters on screen again for the first time in a long time. The feeling then was that Stampede was showing me One Piece at a visual level that was simply impossible for the weekly anime.
But that was three years ago. These days the animation quality and sheer spectacle of Toei’s weekly work is so high caliber that Stampede has lost some of its luster. It still has its moments don’t get me wrong, but its flaws are more apparent now that the weekly series is giving us a lot of what it offered.
I worry that Film Red is fulfilling a similar role for me but in a narrative sense. At the moment we’ve only just gotten out of Wano in the manga after having spent four years there, and the anime is still neck deep in Roof Piece big punch battles (and will be for the foreseeable future). As much as I love all this stuff, it is no secret that Wano is massive and has taken forever to get through, with dozens upon dozens of new characters who get far more attention than the original cast I fell in love with. One of the side effects of reading/watching Wano weekly is that it has given me a sort of nostalgia for One Piece‘s earlier arcs. I find myself pining for days of shorter stories on simpler islands where the Straw Hats were the focal point and their relationships took precedence. Film Red gives me those feelings in many ways, a fully self-contained tale that is wrapped up in two hours. While the story is ultimately Uta’s, her connections to Luffy and Shanks (existing characters I already like who I would like to know more about) is central to her identity.
One Piece Film Red is a fun romp that looks great and sound great too, with terrific voice acting and catchy tunes. It adds to the world without overshadowing what came before it. But I do wonder how much of my enjoyment stems from the fact that it is giving me something that I don’t feel the series itself is giving me at the moment, and if – like Stampede – my estimation of it will fade with time.