It’s easy to dismiss the Professor Layton franchise as merely a “puzzle game” series, but that would be doing a huge disservice to the stellar production values and surprisingly substantial story framework behind each of the four adventures so far. In fact, the top-hatted archeologist’s third game won our 2010 Aggie Award for Best Animation as a worthy testament to its polished cartoon presentation. But there’s only so much time for story with so many puzzles to solve, and only so much detail you can pack into the Nintendo DS’s tiny view screen. Just imagine what those same talented artists and writers could do with the freedom to create a big screen animated feature! Or better yet, don’t imagine, because they’ve actually done just that in the form of Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva.
Originally released in Japanese theatres in 2009 before being translated and distributed in the UK on disc the next year, The Eternal Diva didn’t make its way across the Atlantic and into my hands until late 2011. (Unlike the games, movies are region-encoded, so note the correct format for your area.) The film is set immediately after the events of The Last Specter / Spectre’s Call, though it remains there only long enough for a brief prelude of Layton foiling the plans of his nemesis Don Paolo to silence Big Ben. From there the action shifts back in time several years as a flashback reminiscence of an earlier case, in which Layton and his assistant Luke – sorry, “apprentice #1!”, as Luke so proudly reminds everyone – were invited to an opera by an old student of the professor’s. Now a star singer, Janice Quatlane is troubled by the appearance of a seven year old girl who claims to embody the spirit of Janice's best friend, who died the year before. Janice hopes her old mentor can help solve this puzzle, but the case takes a dangerous turn for the worse when the entire opera house is hijacked by a masked villain proposing a unique game with the highest of stakes: eternal life for one winner, and death for every loser.
Naturally, the madman’s challenge is a series of puzzles; a clever context that provides a nice link to the games. There’s nothing at all interactive about the enigmas provided, but the first two are riddles that can be solved along with Luke and Layton if you’ve been paying close attention to detail to that point, which makes you feel far more invested in the outcome. Unfortunately, that’s about it for audience participation, as the plot soon spirals into a complex tale of both science and superstition that you can only follow from afar. It’s an intriguing plot full of twists and turns, most of which lead the right direction but some not. Over the course of its 98 minute running time, the story is probably one layer too convoluted for its own good, devolving into a rather cockamamie pursuit of a legendary Atlantis-like city by the end, but when it maintains its focus on characters and the motivations that drive them, the movie is a compelling, at times even touching human story that deals with themes of life and death, love and loss.
The upside to the film’s grander goals is that it allows for more action than a standard Layton adventure. Watching the professor muse over purely intellectual dilemmas just isn’t good cinema, after all. Instead we get diabolical villains, ravenous wolves, submersible watercraft, martial arts butt-whupping, giant spider-like robots, and spectacular explosions. Layton himself gets a chance to show off his sword-fighting prowess (first Sherlock, now Layton!) at one point, and must even run for his life on occasion, rather pragmatically declaring that “even a true gentlemen needs to get some exercise.” He won’t be changing his name to Indiana Layton any time soon, as he still somehow manages to avoid getting his clothes dirty, but at least he has the opportunity to work out some other muscles besides his brain.
More importantly, the extra action allowed the artists to exercise some creative license. The Eternal Diva is presented in the same charming hand-drawn cartoon art style as the games, but rather than losing anything in the conversion to the larger screen, here it looks even more impressive. The series’ animation has always drawn comparisons to Studio Ghibli, and the movie even more closely resembles a Miyazaki production. Characters are done in a fairly basic anime style with exaggerated features, but the backgrounds are vivid and rich, from a sweeping vista of the London Bridge to nighttime ocean scenes to a lush tropical island. Basic movements are rather skimpily framed, but there’s a huge array of dazzling animations, such as a beleaguered Inspector Grosky desperately trying to escape shark-infested waters. Some CGI effects have been added as well, and although the discrepancy is noticeable, the two styles complement each other quite nicely. If you love what you get in the games, you’ll love it all the more in the movie, because there’s so much more of it to love.
As you’d expect in a film named after a singer, music plays a fairly prominent role here as well. Both during and after the opera production itself, there’s a generous selection of lovely-sounding female vocals to enjoy. The rest of the soundtrack is fully orchestrated, with piano and violins dominating certain scores, while a soothing accordion-accented piece offers (what both I and apparently the Japanese composers imagine to be) a distinctly European flavour. Voice acting is consistently excellent as well. I believe Layton is performed by Christopher Robin Miller, reprising his role from the games, though with the actors uncredited (in English) it’s hard to be certain; either way, the professor is rock solid as always. The bigger challenge might have been his young apprentice, as so many children (particularly in games) are wretchedly voiced by adults that sound anything like the youth they portray. Thankfully, Maria Darling returns as the pre-pubescent Luke, convincingly depicting his boundless enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence. Lip syncing is fairly minimal, but it has been tailored to match the vocal line lengths. No low-budget, run-on mouth movement here. However, if you’d rather experience the original Japanese acting, that option exists in the setup menu.
There’s a wide supporting cast as well, including cameos by Layton regulars Emmy Altava, Flora Reinhold, and Inspector Chelmey. Most are new, however, including a murder mystery writer, a former star football player, and a snobby socialite among the rather eclectic group of unwilling participants. It’s not necessary to have played any or all of the Layton games to follow the story here, though a certain familiarity with them seems to be assumed. When the villain is first encountered, s/he’s met with a definitive “You!” from Luke, which may or may not elicit the same reaction from viewers. For the most part the movie doesn’t delve too deeply into any one character, though the one time it does, it goes all in. The surprising revelations about the opera singer Janice, the grieving father of her deceased friend (and opera composer), and the little girl who claims to be her spirit incarnate are quite poignant. This may be a cartoon, but it certainly isn’t a children’s movie.
All in all, Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva may not be an animated masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining watch and a commendable entry in the Layton canon. If you’re a fan of the charming artwork, quirky characters, and slightly surreal storylines in the games, you’ll get a kick out of the movie, which is bigger, weirder, and more gorgeous than ever. And if constant puzzle interruptions aren’t your cup of tea, this may be the ideal entry point to find out what all the fuss is about. It’s a shame the writers don’t offer more insight into Layton and Luke personally, as a full-length feature film afforded ample opportunity to flesh them out as better-rounded characters. Instead, the character development is delegated to others, leaving the protagonists as the intellectual action heroes of the film. The plot gets a little too goofy as it over-extends its reach, but it’s well worth seeing through to the end, when it rightly returns to its emotional core. With all the twists and turns throughout, just remember the old saying: it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings – or in this case, the slender young lady with the big sad eyes.