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One Piece live action review – a real treasure of a Netflix series

The Netflix live-action adaptation of One Piece strikes gold by balancing faithfulness with bold directorial choices.

Wealth, fame, power … Netflix, the king of the streamers, attained these and (almost) everything else the world had to offer.

But as its model changed and it introduced higher costs, more ads, and no password sharing, it seemed like death was imminent. Even more worrying was the the hit-and-miss quality of its original content, particularly when it came to adapting animated series into live-action ones (see Cowboy Bebop).

And then along came One Piece.

Tonight, a new, glittering adaptation will breach the surface – and if this reviewer’s opinion means anything, you should climb aboard as soon as possible. Forget about what One Piece means for Netflix, because what it means for you as a viewer is a fun, adrenaline-pumping good time with plenty o’ swashbuckling and swooning.

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The vibes are immaculate

In One Piece, the series based on the manga by Eiichiro Oda, young pirate Monkey D. Luffy has eaten a fruit that gave him the ability to stretch body parts to super-human length. Luffy, as he’s more commonly known, will use this power (and the power of friendship) to work towards his ultimate goal of becoming ‘King of the Pirates’. You can get a brief overview of the story here. I’m gonna skip the summary and just dive right into my assessment of the – honestly excellent – live action.

From the get-go, One Piece feels like an impassioned callback to the action-adventure films of the 80s and 90s – the kind of blockbusters that filled the screen with colour and camp, before grey-washed, grimdark takes on beloved kid’s characters came into fashion. As a long-time fan of the overt goofiness that is One Piece, this had me breathing a sigh of relief after worrying for too long that this adaptation would attempt a gritty seriousness.

There are elements of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), not least because of the villainous clown Buggy and his motley crew of henchmen, mixed with Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004), which to me has the best use of Looney Tunes-like effects in live action cinema. Whether they were directly referencing these films or not, showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda surely understand that what lies at the heart of One Piece is sincere silliness. When we see Luffy stretching out his full body to deflect a cannon ball, or a pair of villains donning cat ears and masks, it doesn’t push us out of the story, but rather immerses us even deeper.

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For the fans that are still worried, I can assure you that there are iconic moments brought to life from the manga that are treated with appropriate reverence. Every main member of the Straw Hat Crew gets at least one episode to shine, and all of them have their iconic flashbacks too.

You’ll see Luffy eating the purple devil fruit and gaining his lucky hat, and Usopp stirring up his village into mass hysteria. You’ll see Zoro training to fight with three swords, and Sanji being lost at sea with the great Zeff of the Cook Pirates. Vital characters like Buggy the Clown, Captain Shanks, Dracule Mihawk, and Arlong are all there and staying true to the canon, and each new character introduction comes with a fun VFX wanted poster animation that breaks the fourth-wall.

Luffy’s ‘wanted’ poster. Image: Netflix

The good, the rad, and the Luffy

Iñaki Godoy is perfectly cast as Luffy, bringing an effervescent presence to the screen as our rubbery hero, and nailing his vibe of ‘I have no idea what’s going on but I know how to do the right thing’. He is a very charming young actor whose star is clearly only going to shine brighter and brighter. He also has incredible chemistry with the rest of the leading cast: Emily Rudd as ship navigator Nami, Mackenyu as swordsman Roronoa Zoro, Jacob Romero Gibson as sharpshooter Usopp, and Taz Skylar as chef Sanji. Each of them take to their roles with gusto and make the world feel real and lived in.

The art direction can’t be praised enough, and it’s clear to see what millions of dollars can do for a series when used properly. The gigantic sets are lovingly filled with eye-catching and narratively significant detail, as are the costumes that not only pay homage to the recognisable uniforms of each character but also come directly from the front covers and colour-spreads that Eiichiro Oda himself designed.

Have fun spotting all the costume variations in the One Piece live action. Image: One Piece manga volume 11, Viz Media.

Godoy’s show-carrying turn as Luffy is almost overshadowed by two things: Jeff Ward as Buggy the Clown, who revels so much in the absurdity of a clown-pirate who can remove his limbs and head at will that it’s hard not to want a spinoff series just for him; and the transponder snails.

Also known as snail phones or Den Den Mushi, the transponder snails are how characters in One Piece remotely communicate with one another, and come in a variety of forms meant to represent the person that owns it. They are disgusting. When these slimy little freaks first appeared on screen, I knew we were in for a good time. The animatronics department clearly went hard for these essential elements of One Piece lore, and I love them for it.

Jim Henson could never. Season 1 of One Piece. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Ch-ch-changes

There are plenty of bold changes, too, which I thought in many cases were for the better. The Straw Hat Crew (Luffy, Nami, et al.) being real human beings and not cartoons means their personalities are deepened and their relationships are explored more. It feels quite genuine. And the show’s MA rating means not only that fights can be as overtly violent and bloody as possible (cartoon blood spurts and real-life blood spurts are never going to directly translate), but that characters can swear.

‘And so what?’ I hear you asking. Well, personally, hearing Zoro haggardly exclaim ‘this fucking clown’ has provided me with enough serotonin to last the remainder of the year.

The other change that stood out to me was bringing minor characters Koby and Helmeppo out of the wings and into the limelight. No more are they simply side characters who join the Marines and disappear for years. Instead, they become unsuspecting conduits for the entire narrative, starting from Luffy’s first tussle with the pirate Alveda, who has Koby under her foot, right up to the final battle with the terrifying saw-nosed Arlong.

The unlikely duo of small, nervous Koby and pompous, idiotic Helmeppo become to One Piece what C-3PO and R2D2 were to Star Wars, bumbling their way through battles between good and evil without fully realising the scope of what they are part of. It’s an absolute joy to watch, particularly because Morgan Davies gets to keep his Australian accent as Koby.

If I’m to have any gripes it would probably be with the laughably bad orange wig they put on Emily Rudd as Nami, and with some of the very wooden child actors in the flashback sequences. But these are minor gripes, as I still loved and recommend the series overall.

Most people already familiar with One Piece are going to go into this series knowing full well that things have been changed. It’s 100 chapters of manga condensed into eight, hour-long episodes after all. This is the best attitude to approach it with, in my opinion, because if you go into it with a notebook and pen, ready to jot down every nit you pick, you’re going to have a bad time.

That said, there are also plenty of easter eggs and deep-cuts that will have that nit-picker brain flowing with happy juice. The best thing is is that the series doesn’t rely on recognition of its IP to keep folks interested. It’s got its own thing going on.

Nestled securely among the genuinely thrilling action sequences and wonderful bouts of silliness is a heart of emotional gold. What One Piece gets right overall is the way it lures you in with all that shiny stuff and then absolutely gut-punches you with its serious moments; exposing the oppression of people who had no say in the matter of pirates vs marines and whether they wanted to pick a side at all.

Funny, exciting, and thoughtful to boot, the proof is in the pudding for One Piece on Netflix to become the greatest live-action anime adaptation of all time.

One Piece, the live action series, can be streamed on Netflix from 5pm AEDT 31 August 2023.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports