The Professor Layton series have enjoyed a quiet but solid success on the Nintendo DS system, with their brain-straining puzzles and quaint pseudo-British charm. For those that don’t know, the series follows the eponymous Professor Layton, a gentleman and a scholar obsessed with puzzles, and his young sidekick Luke as they attempt to figure out a mystery (or rather, a mystery within a mystery within a mystery…) Usually, the only way to glean information or assistance from anyone is to solve some sort of brain-teasing puzzle, often either math or logic based. This often results in a rather hilarious sort of hoop-jumping where you have to arrange twenty coins in some sort of bizarre pattern to get the innkeeper to make your bed or something (Penny Arcade had a great comic about it here: warning for language!)
One nice thing about the Professor Layton series is that it actually had animated cutscenes between major plot chapters, and so it was not that much of a leap to graduate from cutscenes to a full animated movie. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is definitely a love letter to the games that gave rise to it, but does it succeed as an independent anime movie?
Diva Las Vegas
The beginning of the movie is a little confusing, but the gist is as follows: Professor Layton and his apprentice, Luke, are invited by one of Layton’s old students – an opera singer named Janice – to visit the opera house where she performs and, while they’re at it, solve a mystery. It turns out that a young girl had appeared and claimed to be Melina, Janice’s friend and daughter of the opera’s composer Mr. Whistler. Only problem is that Melina had died a year previously…
Before Layton can solve this conundrum, however, things take a turn for the strange when a mysterious masked man appears in the opera and challenges the audience to solve his puzzles in a bid to win the secret to Eternal Life. Before long, most of the competition is whittled down, and Layton, Luke, Janice and a ragtag group of people from all walks of life must journey to a mysterious island that holds the key to Melina’s identity, the secret of Eternal life, and the existence of the fabled and musical kingdom of Ambrosia.
“This reminds me of a puzzle…”
First, the good news: this movie looks and sounds fantastic. While it is a bit heavy on the CG, the animation uses riches colors and great aesthetics. The character design in particular deserves a mention, as it’s delightfully caricatured; it’s very different from most anime designs but remains utterly faithful to the original game, and it’s the sort of thing that tells you almost everything you need to know about the character at first glance. My favorites are the police inspector (who has the most epic bush of chest hair I have seen in any media ever) and the haughty socialite. The music is also great, with lovely callbacks to the Professor Layton theme from the games and some nice Japanese vocal sections during the opera. I did not review the original Japanese audio, but the English dub is more than serviceable for the most part, with more British accents than you can shake a stick at; a few characters end up coming across as a bit too “dreamy,” but the main duo maintain the same aural dynamic as in the games.
For those that are fans of the Nintendo DS series, this anime does a shockingly good job of remaining utterly true to the source material. It really does feel like a Professor Layton game that someone just decided to make a movie out of instead, from subtle things like the establishing shots with hilariously designed extras wandering around to thematic things like, well, puzzle solving! Unfortunately, however, this dedication to Layton’s roots does serve to trip up the movie in many ways. For example, the aforementioned puzzle sections work well in a video game because the player is the one solving the riddle; in the movie, Layton solves everything himself in less than five minutes and it feels a bit more like padding than a central conceit to the movie. Also, in being so connected to the game lore and feel, the movie does slightly alienate new viewers: several important characters are just there with little or no introduction to them, and at one key point in the movie, a character is revealed and everyone goes AHA like they know who he is… even though a new viewer certainly doesn’t! I’d played the first half of the first game so I was able to follow along to a certain extent, but certain characters like the elderly professor and the assistant went over my head for the most part. I realize that one could argue that a Professor Layton movie would mostly appeal to Professor Layton fans, but considering that a lot more people would be willing to give a 90 minute movie a shot over a 20+ hour game, this should have been a lot more newbie friendly.
Sadly, the movie does fail in other areas as well. The beginning is particularly bad as there are so many nested flashbacks that it’s hard to tell what on earth is going on. First they’re in the middle of a different unrelated case, then they’re back at their office, then they remember being in the opera house three years ago, then they remember driving to the opera, then they remember getting the invitation… it’s definitely a turnoff to those aforementioned newbies, and it means the whole first ten minutes of the movie end up being sluggish. Also, while the character design is incredibly vivid and interesting, you don’t actually get much from the characters themselves (aside from Luke and Layton). It’s a bit frustrating to have a boatful of really interesting looking people who clearly have tons of backstory and personality… only to have them glossed over or eliminated in the very next scene. If anything, the design makes it even more noticeable; it’s difficult to figure out who the “important” characters are based on distinguishing art features when, well, everyone has distinguishing art features! Even some of the characters who are important are given next to no personality, particularly the female characters. One teenage girl is suddenly revealed to be important despite having next to no lines or important character development up until then, and Janice, the supposed heroine, pretty much does little else but follow Layton around and look concerned (there are other factors at play with her, but they involve spoilers).
Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is not a bad movie, but for the most part, I would only recommend it to those who are already fans of the franchise; you’ll find a lot to enjoy in how they render the Layton formula for the big screen. For people new to the franchise, it’s not bad, but I think you could do better. The strongest impression I come away with, oddly enough, is that this movie wants to be Castle of Cagliostro– they have a lot in common in terms of plot and theme – and in that case, you’re probably better off just watching that instead!
In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to watch it right now myself… perhaps it’s time for a review of a classic…
Are you a fan of the Professor Layton series? Have you seen the movie? If so, what are your thoughts?