DVD Review: ‘Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva’

"Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a fitting adaptation of the video game series, but 'fitting' isn’t quite synonymous with 'excellent.'"

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Somewhere on the periphery of the Niko Bellics and Nathan Drakes there lies Professor Layton, the canny British gentleman with a penchant for puzzles. In the video game world, Professor Layton is a respected outsider, with four popular games for the Nintendo DS (more to come) but somehow lacking in the mainstream recognition that has turned his contemporaries into household names. For film fans who don’t often dabble in the gaming world, you could perhaps equate his games with works of The Coen Bros. – respected for their quirky genius, occasionally successful, but a little too “fringe” to catch on with the casual summer blockbuster fans. In Japan, however, the Professor Layton games are a bit more of a phenomenon. The first feature film based on the series, Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, was released across the Pacific Ocean in 2009, and has only just last week earned a Straight-to-DVD release in America.

As a fan of the games – who has fallen behind in them, having completed The Curious Village and The Diabolical Box but not quite finished The Unwound Future, nor have I started The Last Specter yet – I have been eagerly anticipating this film for a few years now. I probably could have found a foreign copy, but for whatever reason I have decided to wait, and at last the wait is over. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a fitting adaptation of the video game series, faithfully adapting their world and pernicious puzzles, but “fitting” isn’t quite synonymous with “excellent.” The world of Professor Layton isn’t a dramatically satisfying one when taken as gospel, and the film falls into many of the same narrative traps as the games do. Sadly, the shorter running time calls greater attention to these flaws in a cinematic medium. A rigorous rewrite would have helped, but frankly, the problem lies in the series’ paradoxical premise.

Professor Hershel Layton (voiced by Christopher Robin Miller in the American version) is a British gentleman and archeologist with an obsession for puzzles. His self-proclaimed apprentice, Luke Triton (Maria Darling), has an affinity for brainteasers himself, but exists primarily as an emotional focal point for the series’ narratives and a sounding board for the Professor’s brilliance, not unlike the many companions of Doctor Who. In the games, at least, their fixation on puzzles – as plot points and as games in and of themselves – is mysteriously shared by everyone they encounter on their travels. Many of the plot points in the video games revolve around Layton and Luke needing information, but being forced to solve puzzles that just happen to have been concocted by passers by before they can acquire it. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva adapts the games’ rather idle pacing into what seems at first to be a fairly straightforward take on the Da Vinci Code or Last Crusade mold, in which a devious series of mental challenges stand in the way of a straightforward, albeit fantastical goal, but one that eventually flies off the rails in an fun but unnecessarily confusing manner.

Eternal Diva begins with Layton and Luke receiving an invitation to an opera headlined by one of Layton’s former apprentices, Janice Quatlane (Emma Tate). The opera turns into a deadly game during the curtain call, when a mysterious figure challenges the audience to solve his puzzles. The one winner will receive eternal life. The losers will die. It all ties in to a lost, supposedly mythological city called “Ambrosia,” and a strange little girl who may or may not be possessed by the recently deceased daughter of the opera’s acclaimed composer. The story sends Layton, Luke and a host of supporting characters from one death trap to the next in a variety of intriguing locales before the biggest puzzle of all – what the hell is actually going on – is finally solved.

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a visually striking film that follows the same animation style as the video game series’ many impressive cut scenes, filled with peculiar character designs and short bursts of thrilling action. But like the games, its story eventually turns chaotic. Last minute twists, giant killer robots and Freejack-styled sci-fi conceits are thrown together so quickly in the last act that following the plot becomes a little tiresome. The games are paced so leisurely that these kinds of nutty revelations are easier to accept, since they’re parcelled out hours away from each other, but when the Professor Layton storylines are condensed into a single 90 minute film they strain credulity. The obvious solution – make a longer film – would only put a band-aid on the wound. The problem is far more deeply ingrained.

Professor Layton, you see, is logician, but his world frequently eschews logic altogether, creating an internal conflict within the very nature of his stories. The emphasis on puzzles and pragmatism give the notion that the world of Professor Layton is a secular one, in which all mysteries are easily comprehended when approached analytically. But by the end of most of his journeys we discover that the solutions to his enigmatic plots, as a whole, are inherently far-fetched. Usually these revelations are based on a kind of Phlebotinum super-science that must only be accepted as narrative fact (robots, time travel, etc.) and not scrutinized in the manner that the games and Layton’s own personality inherently encourage. The strangeness of the storylines is a part of their charm, but adapting them to a feature seems to have highlighted its shortcomings. If Professor Layton is ever adapted into a mainstream live-action Hollywood film, which I predict will be put in motion at some point or another, the filmmakers would be wise to keep the left-field fantasy elements to a relative minimum. The Eternal Diva throws out two or three at once, and the effect is a film that ultimately denies all logic even though it spends 2/3’s of the running time promoting it as an ideal.

But despite the unnecessary weirdness of the plot, Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a fun little ride that encourages intellectual involvement more than the typical movie scavenger hunt, giving the audience ample opportunity to solve its puzzles before the characters do without sacrificing much in the way of pacing, and offering a series of delightful action sequences that befit the characters without turning them into stereotypical heroes of any kind. The quirkiness remains intact, and for a while the film excels because of it. Eterna Diva is a faithful adaptation of Professor Layton that should please all of his existing fans and probably amuse neophytes, even as it baffles them. For all its flaws, I still can’t wait for the next one.