REVIEW: ‘One Piece’ is Among Netflix’s Best First Seasons

one piece review

It’s been seven years since One Piece was first announced to be getting a live-action adaptation. The production survived a pandemic, constant delays, a long production in South Africa, one of Netflix’s biggest marketing strategies, and so much more. On August 31st, it finally made its way to Netflix as a binge-drop. Was the wait worth it or did Tomorrow Studios repeat the same mistakes that sank Cowboy Bebop?

To get the easiest comparison out of the way fast: it’s not another Cowboy Bebop (though to be upfront, I felt it as actually decent if taken as its own thing). Showrunners Steven Maeda and Matt Owens managed to do what seemed impossible and bring a goofy but heartfelt series to live-action like One Piece in this new take on the iconic East Blue saga that started it all.

The manga series by Eiichiro Oda is somewhat special in many ways: it is a very goofy, almost childlike story that has some of the most heartfelt moments that truly tug on your heartstrings while managing to still tell the same story for over 26 years at this point. Yet, East Blue is very distinct when compared to the rest as it was the time when Oda was still figuring out the story he wanted to tell with very distinct stories that only loosely connect through the first recruits for Luffy’s journey to the Grand Line.

So, the showrunners are given quite a daunting task having to bring such an iconic series to life and stay true to the original while having to establish a more Western-style connected adaptation of the saga that has the least connective tissue. And, somehow, they managed to pull it off. The smartest move they did was to ensure that the main cast where perfect for their respective characters, which became one of its biggest selling points. Netflix was smart to make good use of pre-recorded interviews and videos of the caster interacting to further sell their dynamic as a team.

Inaki Godoy was a perfect choice for the loveable Monkey D. Luffy. He has just the right energy to play the character and also has that inspiring energy that keeps the story going. Mackenyu is a more subdued Zoro who is inspired by his later appearances but actually adds a bit more variety to the cast with his straight-man reactions and dry humor. Jacob Romero Gibson is a lot of fun and they do more with him than just being comedic relief; they also really embrace his cowardly habits.

Emily Rudd is a standout for her more emotionally-centered performance; not too surprising given the importance of this arc and her story. Lastly, Taz Skylar is a great rendition of Sanji that finds that right balance but given when he is introduced, we sadly don’t get a lot of time with him. However, they make good use of his “new guy” dynamic and want to prove himself. The Straw Hats are the selling point of this series and are definitely the highlights throughout, as you just want to spend time with them even when the show’s first season wraps.

The rest of the cast is also great and outside of maybe one or two, they are probably the most accurate castings I’ve seen in an adaptation. They also give some great and varied performances with Jeff Ward truly being the stand-out as the always loveable but terrifying Buggy. Arlong (McKinley Belcher III) is also a stand-out who has a lot more depth and wasn’t done justice in the trailers. Overall, the villains were great even if one really deserved way more screen time but at least got a slight spotlight. Vincent Regan’s Garp is also a great character who is given a bigger role inspired by a later arc.

One thing many were a bit concerned about early on was the CG and outside of maybe one or two shots, there’s some fantastic work in this show. News Coo and the Lord of the Coast are visually impressive. There’s a scene of swords falling apart that looked off later on in the series but the big surprise is just how well they pull off Luffy’s stretchy powers. They don’t shy away from it and make good use of it whenever they can. Even the Gum Gum Balloon looks convincing which is impressive given how even big-name studios avoid those kinds of powers like with Ms. Marvel.

The most impressive aspect of this series is how they keep this tight balance of having it grounded but the series still has its goofy elements. It makes it stand out from other adaptations that either go too serious or generally just replicate the original source material. There are iconic moments in here but they changed enough that allow it to connect more effectively with an overarching plot and set-up. There are a lot of changes that are here to focus more on the character dynamics and overarching thematic plotline.

Speaking of, the smartest move was to give it a strong connective tissue through the theme as a way to also explore a story that is a bit removed from our main Straw Hat’s journeys. While some of the parts with Garp and the Marines seem disconnected, the way the story comes together actually gives it a strong meaning on why it is being told here and now. The scenes are a bit slower and can break the overall pace, but don’t feel like they overstay their welcome; especially with some great moments from Garp and Helmeppo. Personally, the pay-off of these sequences gives it a lot more weight and made me like the addition to further elevate the themes.

The biggest challenge with these adaptations is the direct comparison to the original. A lot of minor and even some bigger characters were removed which is a shame, but after leaving behind the “I missed this from the original” makes sense in how the story is being told this time around. It’s a different adaptation that feels like how Oda might’ve told it given how his storytelling has evolved since he first worked on the East Blue back in the 90s. Especially in how some characters get a bit more screen time to flesh them out more. The early introduction of characters like Mr. 7 is also a clever way to establish elements that might pay off quite a bit later for new viewers and give reasons to rewatch.

I do have some gripes which are likely due to this being the first season to begin with, as the show is trying to finds its identity. They have created a variety of lenses just for this series but tend to overuse them at times, especially at the beginning of Syrup Village it feels unnecessary. However, the strong use of face close-ups feels inspired generally by Oda’s love for showing expressions that’ll get better with more time. There are also some moments that perhaps could’ve used some additional work to balance it out better as it tends to slip into being a bit goofier than necessary.

Though,t these elements don’t take away from what the team behind One Piece accomplished. With this first season, I believe that Netflix should give this show multiple seasons moving forward to allow it to grow just like the original. I would even go as far to say that this season gives us a stronger East Blue saga even if some characters could’ve used a bit more love and some iconic scenes were sadly missing to add relevance. Still, this might be one of Netflix’s strongest first seasons which makes the small issues I have just a way to truly refine it going into the next arc that is famous for doing the same for the manga.

One Piece truly stands out from most series nowadays with its style and wacky world. Small details like the cast interacting with the wanted posters that introduce them give it a lot of charm. Even if some CG looks a bit wonky, the practical sets are really impressive and it has such distinct style that makes it stand out from other projects out there. If this is the first season; I cannot wait to see a lot more in the future and hopefully spend more time with this cast for many seasons to come.

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