Napoleon’s Dictionary (1991)

I enjoyed revisiting Lupin III by way of a couple of his feature films so much that I decided to pick up a few more of his cases. About every year, there’s a made-for-TV special. 1991’s Napoleon’s Dictonary was the third of 28 and counting in this series. It’s entertaining, but also very, very flawed. Even understanding that something made for television is naturally going to have a smaller budget than a big-screen film, this was still a big surprise to me. Slapdash animation, poor modelling, and downright indifferent direction all conspire to almost ruin this story. There’s a bit where two trains are about to collide in a tunnel, crushing a police car between them, which should have been the funniest thing in the whole movie, but it falls so flat that I wondered whether they even storyboarded the thing or if it just happened by accident.

Another weird flaw: it’s a given that Goemon is the greatest swordsman who ever lived and his sword can cut through anything. This is the sort of thing you need to deploy very sparingly, so it has maximum effect. For example, the actual funniest thing in the whole movie is this: Lupin and Jigen are locked in an RV by some CIA agents and they’re grumbling that the only thing American vehicles are any good for is their sturdiness, at which point Goemon cuts the RV in half. But by the end of the movie, Goemon has cut everything in half without challenge. He stops being a comic time bomb and turns into Superman. Goemon should never, ever be boring, but that’s what this movie makes him.

Despite this, the story does have a few very funny gags, and I liked the very real-world setting. It’s 1991, the Gulf War has just finished, and now the G7 nations are in a recession because they’ve all been nearly bankrupted by their Middle East misadventures and unemployment is high. The member nations start leaning on Japan – again – to buy their way out of this, until somebody points out that Lupin’s grandfather somehow buried a fortune worth about $200 billion, and so they should probably finally arrest the pest and impound the loot for themselves.

Meanwhile, Lupin’s also aware of this story, but he doesn’t know where the treasure is. He knows where there’s a clue: Napoleon Bonaparte once had a dictionary that passed into the family hands, and somebody wrote some details on a page, but the dictionary vanished years ago. Now it has resurfaced: it’s the prize in a Great Race, using antique cars to motor from Madrid to Paris. And Lupin just happened to snatch a 1908 Packard in New York City. Lupin’s stated reason why he wants the dictionary has nothing to do with a fortune, is a great big lie, and is the second funniest thing in the whole movie.

It’s a good setup and there are some fine gags, but overall I was still underwhelmed. As I mentioned in these pages previously, as much as I like the characters, I haven’t seen a whole lot of their outings – looks like I’ve seen three features, five or six TV episodes, and two of the TV specials before this – but this is the weakest installment that I’ve seen so far. When it worked, it worked very well, and our son absolutely loves Lupin and Zenigata’s eternal game of cat-and-mouse. When it didn’t, it was crying for a new animation studio to take over, and a different director to make this script sparkle. Still, they can’t all be winners, and we’ll look at another TV special soon.

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