Scott Pilgrim Takes Off Isn’t a Retread, But a Well-Earned Remix
Netflix’s Scott Pilgrim anime tries to adapt with the times.
Don’t expect Scott Pilgrim Takes Off to be a beat-for-beat retread of the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Or the live-action film by Edgar Wright. Or the video game adaptation of the same name.
Granted, the new Netflix series shares plenty of connective tissue with its predecessors. With O’Malley serving as a writer alongside BenDavid Grabinski, and Wright producing behind the scenes, there’s bound to be some overlap. The cast of the 2010 film — that’s right, every last one of them — are also back to voice their respective characters. That knowledge alone is enough to excite hardcore Pilgrim fans, but with excitement inevitably comes expectation. Can Scott Pilgrim Takes Off honor its source material while matching the mania of its live-action adaptation? ... No, probably not. But that’s the very thing that justifies its existence: It doesn’t really try to.
There’s one thing that will never change in the Pilgrim-verse: This is the story of boy meets girl. Subversive softboy Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, finally gelling with the role) often sees a pink-haired, roller-blading girl in his dreams. This is none other than Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a manic pixie delivery girl who takes a shortcut through Scott’s subconscious to shave time off her daily commute. Naturally, Scott thinks she’s just a figment of his imagination. But when he actually encounters Ramona in the wild, he upends every aspect of his precious little life to get close to her.
After dodging his angsty bandmates and even ghosting his high school girlfriend (it’s just as weird now as it was 20 years ago), Scott is free to, hopefully, date Ramona. Unfortunately, his literal dream girl has plenty of baggage of her own, starting with the League of Evil Exes, a collective of former lovers that will stop at nothing to get her back... even if it means fighting Scott to the end.
It’s a premise that millennials on any side of the geek spectrum can recite without missing a beat, and Scott Pilgrim Takes Off spends the bulk of its first episode doing the very same. Whole lines of dialogue are plucked unedited from the pages of O’Malley’s novels — and with the cast of Wright’s film returning to recount them, the anime reads almost like a mash-up of both... just with nothing new to offer.
By the time Scott goes head-to-head with Ramona’s first ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), it’s hard to deny the inevitable. This feels like a remake, or worse: It feels like a slightly more polished motion comic. But then, something incredible happens. Something that would technically constitute as a spoiler, so you’ll just have to wait and see — but it’s enough to keep the eight-episode anime on its own path, one that remixes the events of the novels without rehashing them completely.
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is not here to step on anyone’s toes. It’s very much in conversation with the Pilgrim-verse stories that have come before, but it’s also tapped into the discourse that’s fueled the fandom all these years. It’s also keen to explore the same questions that so many of us have found ourselves asking at one point. Is a duel the only way to resolve issues with an ex? Is Scott Pilgrim really the hero of this story? In eight episodes, each clocking in under half an hour, Scott Pilgrim will attempt to answer those questions. Results may vary, but at least they seem to be having fun doing it.
With Netflix, O’Malley and Grabinski have found a clever way to revisit this world while keeping old expectations intact. That curiosity results in some truly intriguing choices, particularly where the true scene-stealers in The League — Chris Evans’ Lucas Lee, for one, or Jason Schwartzman’s Gideon Graves — are concerned. A series has much more time to expand on their motivations and flaws, so Ramona’s exes feel more like characters than they ever have before. The multi-episode format also gives director Abel Góngora the chance to play with form and push this already-gonzo sci-fi premise into even more ambitious territory.
Of course, there are still downsides to this particular remix. Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is subverting its source material at every turn, so its success hinges on fans’ familiarity with the original story. It also shares a fatal flaw with Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, particularly where its female characters are concerned. Few of them get the autonomy they deserve in the series; Ramona especially is mostly defined by the men around her, even as she works to take the narrative into her own hands and bond with her true peers. Characters like Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) and Scott’s Big Ex, Envy (Brie Larson), are similarly underutilized. It’s frustrating to watch this story fall into the same traps as its predecessors, especially since it has more time to expand on what Wright’s film couldn’t.
The troubles with the anime really begin and end with its story — but it feels wrong to criticize something that’s otherwise a total blast to experience. If anything, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is an interesting experiment, and a pleasant (if not surprising) walk down memory lane. It may not work that well on its own, but as a complement to the world that O’Malley and Wright have been building for the past decade, at least it brings something new to the table.