Netflix’s ‘Scott Pilgrim’ Anime Series Puts a Fresh, Self-Aware Spin on the Cult Classic: TV Review
Comics creator Bryan Lee O’Malley first published his “Scott Pilgrim” series from 2004 to 2010. This was the era of “Garden State” and “(500) Days of Summer” — stories about lost, lonely young men pining after exciting, elusive women whose charm brought them out of their shell. The “Scott Pilgrim” comics’ titular Toronto bassist fit this description to a tee, pursuing the pink-haired delivery girl Ramona Flowers by doing battle with her League of Evil Exes. (Influenced by Japanese manga, “Scott Pilgrim” rendered typical relationship anxieties in the heightened language of video games.) In Edgar Wright’s beloved film adaptation, Scott was played by Michael Cera, the doe-eyed poster child for beta masculinity.
This is not to criticize “Scott Pilgrim,” but simply to note that it’s a story very much of its time. Yet O’Malley, in partnership with writer BenDavid Grabinski, has brought the franchise into 2023 with a new animated series for Netflix, revisiting his best-known work after over a decade. At first, “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” seems like a straightforward adaptation, just rendered in the visual style of O’Malley’s original artwork instead of Wright’s kinetic live action. (Wright remains involved as an executive producer.) The film’s entire cast, from Cera to Chris Evans to Aubrey Plaza, even reprises their roles as voice performers. But at the end of its pilot, “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” swerves in an unexpected direction — one that both distinguishes the show from previous iterations of the “Scott Pilgrim” concept and comments on them from our current cultural vantage point.
O’Malley, Grabinski and their collaborators have kept the details of “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” tightly under wraps, including the basic premise of its plot. Those who would like to respect their wishes should stop reading after this paragraph. Before they go, though, I’ll sum up my feelings in the broadest possible terms: “Takes Off” successfully combines the innovative style and comic charm of its predecessors with a new spin that corrects for the tropes we can now see with hindsight.
For everyone else: “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” is not, it turns out, about Scott Pilgrim. Ramona Flowers (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead) has gone from the somewhat passive object of Scott’s aspiration — partners past and present literally fight over her! — to a woman on a quest of her own. When Scott’s first face-off against Ramona’s ex Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) goes suddenly awry, the audience realizes they’re no longer watching the “Scott Pilgrim” they thought they knew. From there, Ramona goes on her own mission, reckoning with past relationships and coming into clearer focus as a character.
She’s not the only supporting player in the video-game influenced world of “Scott Pilgrim” to benefit from Scott’s reduced role. Scott’s love interest before Ramona, the teenaged Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), gets a personality beyond her puppy-dog crush — of which “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” takes pains to note the iffy power dynamics, while also explicitly stating Knives and Scott have never so much as kissed. The Evil Exes, too, get more depth and nuance. Final boss Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) gets an origin story; Ramona’s college ex Roxy (Mae Whitman) gets closure and an emotional breakthrough. Television offers a roomier canvas than film, so O’Malley and Grabinski can be more generous with their spotlight than Wright could be.
With animation, “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” can also achieve a more thorough and playful homage to its influences. Japan-based studio Science Saru helps enliven O’Malley’s previously static artwork, which combines gaming with the conventions of shonen, or boys’, comics. In one sequence, Ramona’s movie star ex Lucas Lee (Evans) squares off against a fleet of ninja-like paparazzi who multiply around him. The scene is playful and clever, just like how every episode’s title card includes a “Start Here” button to mimic a video game home screen or how one character’s defeat turns their body into a pile of coins, like points to be collected. Japanese rock band contributes an earworm of a theme song, while American group Anamanaguchi supplies the rest of the soundtrack (yes, there’s a Metric cover).
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” is simple and fun, but it’s not exactly meant for kids; Ramona and Scott explicitly discuss whether or not to have sex on their first date. Rather, the show is meant for former kids revisiting an old favorite through more grown-up eyes. To serve that audience, it has to supply both nostalgic comfort and novelty inflected with self-awareness. It’s not an easy assignment, but like a triumphant gamer, “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” completes its mission.
All eight episodes of “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” are now streaming on Netflix.