Netflix’s Live-Action ‘One Piece’ Is Loyal to a Fault: TV Review

In the realm of adaptations, the transition of anime and manga into live-action format has often been plagued by challenges, much like their counterparts based on video games. However, surprisingly, 2023 emerges as a pivotal year for both categories. HBO kickstarted the year with the premiere of “The Last of Us,” a gripping drama that masterfully translates the melancholic, character-driven essence of the 2013 zombie apocalypse game. Garnering enthusiastic reviews, impressive viewership, and numerous Emmy nominations, “The Last of Us” defied a longstanding trend of disappointment. A few months later, “The Super Mario Bros.” movie achieved similar box office success, though not entirely winning over critics.

Recognizing this shift, Netflix enters the scene with the launch of “One Piece,” a series adapted from Eiichiro Oda’s enduring manga saga. Past endeavors in this domain have faced mixed fortunes—a history Netflix is well-acquainted with. In addition to well-documented failures like “Ghost in the Shell” starring Scarlett Johansson and “Dragonball Evolution,” the streaming giant has also taken chances on projects like the critically-panned “Death Note” and the swiftly shelved “Cowboy Bebop.” Armed with substantial resources and a global footprint, Netflix is in an optimal position to reshape a cultural export such as “One Piece” for a fresh and diverse audience. Yet, drawing from past lessons, Netflix understands the intricate dynamics of dedicated fanbases, cautious stakeholders, and the intangible essence of animation that can complicate such endeavors.

Fortunately, “The Last of Us” now offers a promising blueprint to follow in the pursuit of successful adaptations.

In anticipation of this, Netflix has made thorough preparations. Eiichiro Oda, the creator, has publicly endorsed the season, while co-showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda have molded the first 100 chapters of the manga into eight hour-long episodes. Subscribers have the option to either gear up or catch up, with 15 seasons of the “One Piece” anime already available for streaming. The show has cleverly capitalized on the fervent excitement generated at the Tudum fan event this summer, positioning “One Piece” to likely attain commercial triumph. This strategy aims to both satisfy devoted fans dedicated to fidelity to the original source and serve as an entry point for newcomers. However, despite its effectiveness as an homage and an introduction, this adaptation of “One Piece” remains ensnared by the challenge of recreating a world originally conceived for two-dimensional mediums.

“One Piece” is a captivating nautical fantasy that embroils pirate crews in a pursuit of a legendary treasure, known as the “one piece,” set against the efforts of marines to uphold law and order. The story revolves around Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), a spirited teenager aspiring to become the King of the Pirates. Over the course of the season, he acquires a ship and assembles a diverse crew, each harboring their own dreams. Roronoa Zoro (Mackenyu), a skilled swordsman, strives to be the world’s greatest blade fighter; Nami (Emily Rudd), a cunning thief, seeks to chart the entire globe; Sanji (Taz Skyler), the group’s chef, searches for a fabled source of unique ingredients; and the cheerful Usopp (Jacob Romero Gibson) aims to impress his crush. Luffy, or simply “Luffy,” takes on a distinct role as a pirate who empowers his comrades to pursue their individual ambitions, even extending this encouragement to Koby (Morgan Davies), a fellow traveler with aspirations to join the marines.

The universe in which this adventure unfolds can only be described as whimsically surreal. In his youth, Luffy consumed a mystical Gum Gum Fruit, endowing him with the extraordinary ability to stretch his body like rubber. As the Straw Hat Pirates traverse the seas, encountering fishmen, snail phones, and even a shape-shifting killer clown (Jeff Ward) who can dismantle his own body, they remain anchored by Luffy’s iconic straw hat — an ever-present symbol of his identity. Luffy’s signature maneuver involves propelling a noodle-like limb in a fluid motion, accompanied by the resounding cry of “Gum Gum Pistol.” Notably, the ship under his command boasts a massive goat skull adorning its bow.

Under the helm of pilot director Marc Jobst, guided by the creative vision of production designer Richard Bridgland and costume designer Diana Cilliers, an army of dedicated crew members crafts a visual tapestry where the chaos harmonizes deliberately through the blend of CGI and practical effects. Scenes of hand-to-hand combat are masterfully choreographed, while a prologue featuring former Pirate King Gold Roger (Michael Dorman) ignites a fervent treasure-hunting frenzy within a colossal crowd awaiting his execution, capturing the grandeur of the narrative’s scale. At its zenith, “One Piece” emerges as a vibrant and joyous spectacle, its exuberance seamlessly intertwining with its straightforward coming-of-age trajectory.

Yet, as much as these endeavors transport the audience, they inevitably evoke the essence of the original “One Piece” medium, emphasizing the sometimes awkward marriage with live action, regardless of the investment poured into it. Watching a human-sawtooth shark hybrid, dressed in an open Hawaiian shirt, stroll into a restaurant is never a sight that will seem natural. Even within the core cast, an acting style oscillating between rigid and vivacious often prevails. While Godoy exhibits charm, his drawn-out cheer and fist-pumping in Luffy’s emblematic stance lingers a touch too long, creating an uncanny sensation that borders on imitating a still image. Beyond its unsettling effect, this also beckons a more profound inquiry: If the best achievable outcome is a close or distant approximation of the original, what distinctive contribution does this rendition of “One Piece” offer that its original counterpart does not?

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