‘One Piece’ Review Netflix’s Live-Action Manga Adaptation Is a Delight
It rarely takes very long for Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), the irrepressible hero of Netflix’s One Piece, to announce his grand plan to everyone. “I’m going to be king of the pirates,” he declares, always with a bright smile that never seems to have known even a shade of self-doubt.
It sounds like a little boy’s fantasy the first time we hear it — and the second, and the third, and probably the hundredth too. But over eight hour-long episodes, that youthful pluck starts to seem less like a reason to doubt him than a reason to believe in him. One Piece is a celebration of the power of childlike wonder that itself feels like the delightful product of a kid’s imagination.
To be fair, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical at first that the young man drifting alone in a run-down sailboat has what it takes. When we meet Luffy, he has no ship, no crew, no map — just the unyielding conviction that he will be the pirate captain to find the One Piece, a legendary hidden treasure that thousands of others have already died seeking. But in time, that proves to be enough. (Well, that plus the Mister Fantastic-style elasticity he possesses thanks to the magical “Devil Fruit” he consumed years ago.) The first season charts his course from total joke to true leader, as he and his lovably ragtag team make a name for themselves in the occasionally cutthroat seas.
Perhaps owing to the fact that creators Matt Owens and Steven Maeda are adapting from literal decades of lore — the still-ongoing manga launched in the 1990s, and has since spawned a beloved anime, films, games, books and more — the premiere episode feels bogged down with set-up. But with the basics established, One Piece settles into a bouncy rhythm by its second or third episode. Luffy sails from one adventure to the next, typically spending about two chapters on each one. In between clashes with colorful pirates, like the mad clown Buggy (Jeff Ward) or the megalomaniacal fish-man Arlong (McKinley Belcher III), he dodges the Marines, led by the dogged vice admiral Garp (Vincent Regan).
Along the way, Luffy collects crewmates: mysterious thief Nami (Emily Rudd), stoic swordsman Zoro (Mackenyu), boastful sharpshooter Usopp (Jacob Romero) and smooth-talking chef Sanji (Taz Skylar), whose backstories are revealed to us in flashbacks to their childhoods. Like Max’s Our Flag Means Death, One Piece rests on a rosy vision of piracy that’s less about looting and plundering than it is about chasing freedom with a found family — often to the bafflement of other pirates within the universe, who care very much about looting and plundering. The collective warmth of the Straw Hat Pirates (as they become known thanks to Luffy’s signature accessory) is winning enough to paper over some of the series’ weaker elements, like its underdeveloped Marine characters or its halfhearted handling of social issues like class, oppression and (species-based) racism.
But what One Piece lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in sheer fun. The Netflix adaptation can’t claim full credit for the originality of its universe, and as a relative newbie to this franchise, I can’t say how faithfully it’s been translated. I can say I was tickled by the quirky details of a world that borrows equally from modern reality, period drama and pure fantasy. Characters who look like they’ve just come from an Old Navy sale hang out with characters who look like they might have stepped off the Black Pearl. Uniformed seagulls deliver newspapers around the world, and semi-sentient sea snails serve as telephones. I’d promise that last part makes more sense onscreen than written out, but it doesn’t, really; part of the enjoyment here is deciding to just roll with it.
The show’s action sequences likewise teeter between good-naturedly goofy and genuinely cool. In the former camp, Luffy using his powers to stretch his neck several stories high or deflect cannonballs with his grotesquely inflated chest was never not going to look ridiculous, but Godoy’s exuberant physicality sells the moves. The latter is provided in large part by Zoro. His twin blades can cut down entire roomfuls of baddies with grace and style — and in a refreshing contrast to the chopped-up incoherence that damns so many mediocre action projects, the camera actually steps back and lingers long enough to appreciate the artistry of Mackenyu and the stunt team. (Here I should note that the show might run a tad violent for the smallest kids; it’s rated TV-14.) This being One Piece, though, the character can’t resist the urge to add a kooky flourish: Zoro’s signature move is busting out a third sword, to be wielded with his teeth.
In such a playful light, even One Piece‘s slightly janky look becomes charming: If the candy-apple-red hair on Luffy’s erstwhile mentor Shanks (Peter Gadiot) looks very much like a Party City wig, it just adds to the sense that this is all one big, joyous game of make-believe — albeit one constructed with an adult writer’s mind for continuity. The series neither takes itself too seriously, nor apologizes for its silliness. In that sense, its spirit takes after that of its protagonist, who knows perfectly well that his ambitions sound preposterous to most people, and who does not care one lick.
Both Luffy and One Piece hold close to their hearts the idea that childhood dreams matter — that they’re not frivolities to be discarded as we age, but north stars pointing us to our most life-affirming desires and most fully realized selves. Nearly all the show’s heroes are defined by the goals they set growing up: to draw a map of the whole world, to become the greatest swordsman who ever lived, to find a possibly mythical zone where the oceans of the world come together. From one perspective, they might sound like the fancies of a naive schoolchild. From this series’, they’re goals pure and ambitious enough to reshape the world. By putting its faith in its characters’ youthful joie de vivre, One Piece delivers enough fun to thrill the inner child in tweens and grown-ups alike.