Despite underperforming in theaters back in 2010, the Edgar Wright film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World instantly amassed a cult following through its cross-pollination of multiple excitable fanbases. It’s an adaptation of a series of manga-inspired graphic novels by Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley, whose work has galvanized both the North American indie comics community and the (much larger) manga readership. The comics—and the film—were heavily inspired by the rules, tropes, and iconography of classic video games, as well as the fuzzy indie rock coming out of Toronto in the 2000s, defined by acts like Broken Social Scene. And, of course, there was the brilliance of the movie itself, which was the perfect outlet for Wright’s tightly-choreographed, joke-dense, and needledrop-heavy style of filmmaking. Nevertheless, when news broke earlier this year that Scott Pilgrim was receiving a new, animated adaptation from Japanese studio Science Saru, and that it would reunite the entire live-action cast, the collective fan response was, “Cool, but why?” Apart from an exhaustive, direct translation of the comic (as animé often are), what’s left to do with the source material?
A whole lot, as it happens, to the extent that I’m going to offer a SPOILER WARNING here: If you’re a Scott Pilgrim fan whose reservation is that there would be nothing new or exciting about this series, consider that fear assuaged, stop reading here, and come back later. For the curious among you, allow me to explain how Scott Pilgrim Takes Off recaptures the punch and pathos of the original work without simply retreading it.
PRESS START to RESUME REVIEW
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off begins as a fan might expect, with a very pretty, very loyal retelling of the first book in the series, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. The story centers around the titular Toronto twentysomething (voiced by Michael Cera), the bassist in a mediocre punk band who is in an entirely chaste but still ill-advised relationship with a bubbly high school student, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). When Scott encounters the literal girl of his dreams, the enigmatic American scenester Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he starts seeing her concurrently. But, in order to date Ramona, Scott will have to fight and defeat the League of Evil Exes, the seven people whose hearts Ramona has left broken in her wake. In addition to imaginative use of the “camera” to take advantage of this new medium, there are a few cute winks at the nature of this adaptation — for example, rather than working for Amazon, Ramona now delivers DVDs rented on Netflix. Apart from these little flairs, however, there’s nothing to indicate that the animé will be anything but another swing at familiar material (at least not on first viewing).
Before long, however, the series Takes Off (get it?) in a completely different direction, casting Ramona Flowers as the lead protagonist and granting the entire ensemble more time and new avenues to explore. Apart from Ramona, the characters who benefit most from this expansion are the Evil Exes themselves—theatrical tryhard Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), movie star Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), Vegan rock god Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), hyperactive goth Roxie Richter (Mae Whitman), and tech genius twins Kyle and Ken Katayanagi (Julian Cihi), as Ramona is forced to revisit her past mistakes. The new series includes most of the expected ingredients, but employs them in unexpected ways. True to the rhythm of the novels and film, each chapter still includes an imaginative and funny fight sequence that mashes up video game concepts with other gimmicks appropriate to each combatant. There’s also a slew of original songs from Amanaguchi, the chiptune rock band that provided the acclaimed soundtrack to the 2010 Scott Pilgrim video game, and a few other cute musical nuggets.
Despite telling a different story, Takes Off is a natural companion piece to O’Malley’s graphic novels, tackling much of the same thematic material from a new angle. In the source material, Scott Pilgrim is a deeply flawed protagonist who has mistaken his own thoughtlessness for endearing naivety. He’s convinced that he’s the main character, the charming hero, and the original text is about gradually shattering this illusion and forcing him to face the consequences of his selfishness. Takes Off puts Ramona’s “cool girl” persona under the same microscope (something Wright’s film doesn’t) and reveals the ways in which, deep down, she and Scott aren’t all that different. The series also has an air of self-critique; as a co-writer O’Malley (with BenDavid Grabinski) seems to grapple with how much he himself has or hasn’t grown in the 13 years since he published the last graphic novel installment. How much can a person really change, even if they know what they’ve done wrong? Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?
As with so many recent franchise releases, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off suffers from an indifference towards courting new viewers. It’s possible that a newcomer could throw on the series without any familiarity with the source text and still have a good time, oblivious to the remixed story unfolding in front of them, but that’s clearly not who it’s meant for. Takes Off is a good-spirited prank pulled on the existing fanbase, whose willingness to entertain a new iteration of the same product is rewarded with something more exciting. Whether this should be considered a weakness is up for debate, especially when Wright’s excellent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is also available on Netflix, right next to its sideways remake. Might some viewers, old or new, have preferred a straight-up animé adaptation of the graphic novel? Possibly, but it now seems clear that to do so would fly in the face of what Bryan Lee O’Malley wants to say with his work: that reflection is only part of progress. If you want to move forward, you have to do things differently.