Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 3rd 2008
DVD - Season 1 Part 1 Uncut
Monkey D. Luffy is a carefree young pirate with big dreams and a body made of rubber. He may begin his journey to fame inexplicably stuffed inside a floating barrel, but one day he plans to become the Pirate King. No self-respecting pirate king would be caught dead without a crew—or more accurately, would be killed if he didn't have one—so Luffy is on the lookout for skilled partners who will share his dream. Naturally he goes about it in the most haphazard way possible, his unpredictable behavior made all the more so by his inability to let any injustice stand unpunished. And injustice is everywhere. There are fat lady pirates and iron-jawed Marines who terrorize their underlings. There's Buggy, a ill-tempered pirate clown with a big cannon and terrifying powers who makes the mistake of letting an underling beat up a dog. And there's Captain Kuro, an evil, scheming ex-pirate with a plan to go legitimate that involves the cruel manipulation of an entire town's emotions. With so many evildoers to straighten out, it's a lucky thing that his insane persistence, fierce loyalty, and good nature are able to win normally level-headed folks like frighteningly skilled swordsman Zoro , female thief Nami and useless “marksman” Usopp to his side. Maybe he'll have his crew after all.
Shonen Jump series often take a while to hit full stride, and are thus justifiably famous for the frequency with which their fans use the lame phrase “it gets better later” to describe them. There is a school of thought, subscribers to which include myself, that holds that anything that can't manage to hook you within five hours (the length of this set) isn't worth wasting time on. To those not immediately susceptible to One Piece's often disconcertingly seamless mix of goofy weirdness, shameless sentimentality and pure bone-cracking cool, this immensely fun but occasionally clumsy set of introductory stories may well seem to fall directly into that category. To them I can only say with purest angelic honesty: it gets better later.
As for those who are susceptible to that mixture, or even just think that they might be: get ready for a boatload of fun. Without doubt the series is still in its introductory phase, going through the usual Shonen Jump steps of establishing its hero's dream and expounding upon the importance of friendship. You can actually see the series finding its path as the story arcs grow progressively longer and more involved. The first two villains do little more than provide a chance to introduce Luffy and Zoro. The Buggy fight sets the series' precedent for battles that are simultaneously tense and hilarious, but inexplicably relies on a dog for its emotional core. It's the Captain Kuro arc that finally sees One Piece commanding all of the qualities that make it such addictive viewing: brutal fights with high, carefully constructed stakes, a villain that is both unspeakably cool and utterly vile, an inventive sense of humor, and an ability to ground itself in intense emotion. Plus, in true shounen style, it ends the set with a killer cliffhanger.
However, even at this early stage the series' execution is more positive than negative. Eichiro Oda's peculiar artistic aesthetic—lanky, cartoony character designs, cluttered settings, bizarre clothing, and lots of distorted angles and ominously shadowed faces—allows the series to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of being totally silly and deadly serious at the same time, setting up hilarious sight gags (Buggy's ignominious defeat) and vicious brutality (Kuro's attack on Kaya's butler) with equal aplomb. Director Kônosuke Uda soon learns to turn the flat look of the series to his advantage, using lightning pans, overlapping panes of animation, and jumpy editing to give the fights a unique energy. And composer Kouhei Tanaka backs it all up with unexpectedly catchy symphonic and modern themes that, in Uda's hands, are pure piratic bliss. In the meantime awkward flashbacks and the occasional embarrassing dramatic flourish in the music attest—along with the honing of the narrative formula—to the series' fledgling status.
The big mouths, pointy teeth, and inhuman supporting characters will of course be off-putting to some, but the audience most interested in this release couldn't care less about the series' artistic merits or its growing pains. They already know exactly what colorful, incongruously cool, and often surprisingly emotional fun the series can be, because they're already fans. The most pressing question for these fans isn't how good the series is, but how well Funimation treats it. Well, allay your fears. Though basically a bare-bones release, the thinpak box, with thirteen episodes across two discs, is reasonably good-looking (no gaudy yellow), the episodes are genuinely uncut, and clean opening and closings are provided. For those for whom reaching for the remote each episode is a chore, here's even a marathon feature that plays the entire disc without the opening or closing sequences.
And then there's the English version. Funimation isn't exactly pulling out the stops, but they approach the project with all the professionalism and respect that one expects from an American licensor. Actors are generally well-matched to their roles, their performances often close enough to the originals to be a tad eerie. Of the main cast Christopher R. Sabat, in his usual gruff-but-kind groove, is a standout as Zoro, while Colleen Clinkenbeard's Luffy grows steadily on you. The supporting cast is excellent, especially when playing around a bit—Kenny Green is a pure gas as moon-walking pirate hypnotist Jango—and in the case of Carrie Savage's Kaya, can even carry some of the heavier scenes with surprising ease. The English-dubbed opening and ending songs will be an acquired taste (skillful songwriting notwithstanding), and when things get emotional in the Captain Kuro episodes the actors stumble somewhat over the clunky dialogue born of Funimation's uncharacteristic fidelity, but even at it's worst this version is far superior to 4Kids Entertainment's version. Of course it doesn't tell you much to say that it's better than 4Kids' hack job (that's like saying you're a better person than Hitler: it leaves an awful lot of leeway) but if watching 4Kids' version was like watching a Satanic cult eating an infant, then Funimation's version is like watching a perfectly normal family raise the same infant. Sure they have their problems, but at least no one gets devoured.
For those interested—and smart or persistent enough to finally track it down in the "Episodes" menu—Funimation also provides an audio commentary track featuring ADR director Mike McFarland, Clinkenbeard and Sabat discussing the insane dubbing hurdles that a sprawling shounen epic presents, especially one in which episode 144 is dubbed long before the crew even touches episode 1 (a split-schedule that was necessitated by Funimation's decision to continue the television broadcast where 4Kids left off).
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Shounen adventure that packs likeable characters, big laughs, plentiful thrills, and emotional heft into a single distinctive package.
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