Given Scott Pilgrim began life as a graphic novel series and quickly became a beloved Canadian-centric entry in the great North American comic book industry, it’s certainly been long overdue for an animated adaptation.
That’s usually how these things go, anyway: comic becomes famous, comic becomes animated series (or film), and then, maybe somewhere down the track, it gets the live action treatment. It’s the way it went for One Piece, and decades of DC and Marvel works. It’s also the way it went for Scott Pilgrim’s main inspiration: the anime Ranma 1/2 (an action rom-com about a sex-changing martial artist).
But things have been done a little differently here. In 2010, Edgar Wright directed a live-action feature film from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic called Scott Pilgrim vs The World, which became something of a cult classic despite not performing well at the box office. It’s still well known for its use of 2D animation transposed onto live action footage to give it that comic-book feel, a technique that has been imitated many times since then (including in Heartstopper).
Thirteen years later, Wright has come back to rehash the idea of Scott Pilgrim with a fully animated Netflix series, and he has miraculously brought the entire original cast with him. The series, titled Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, takes an eraser and red corrections pen to both the film and the original source material, attempting to Wright the text’s wrongs while also giving it a refreshing perspective.
From paper to screen
The dynamic and brightly-coloured animation is so perfect for the world of Scott Pilgrim – it’s a bit of a no-brainer, really. There are far fewer physical limitations to animation, so recreating the Street Fighter style combat sequences and bombastic concert performances of Envy Addams (Brie Larson/Metric) becomes quite a lot easier when compared to the live action adaptation.
The challenge here is turning 2D characters into (emotionally) 3D ones, so that we see them as real characters with relatable thoughts and feelings. As far as that goes, I think the creators have succeeded.
What’s most interesting about Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is the way it 180s on audience expectations. From episode one it appears to be a faithful, frame-for-frame remake of the film – which would make sense what with all the cast (see: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jason Schwartzmann, Chris Evans, etc.) returning – but then something strange, and awesome, and strangely awesome happens. Scott Pilgrim takes off, literally, and we are left scrambling to make sense of things as everything comforting and familiar is KO’d out of the frame.
In the original, Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is a 23 year-old bass player dating high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), and when he falls in love with the uh, more age-appropriate, Ramona Flowers (Winstead), he suddenly finds himself having to fight a league of her seven evil exes.
So far the same in Takes Off. Things get strangely awesome though when Scott unpredictably loses his battle against the first evil ex and is – probably? – murdered.
Developed by author O’Malley himself and Ben David Grabinski, the series serves as both a remake and a sequel – not entirely rebooting the franchise, and not simply following on from the film’s end point either. It’s more of a ‘what if?’, beginning at the source material’s launch point and then scrambling the coordinates.
Intrigued by the whodunnit presented to her, Ramona takes solving Scott’s murder into her own hands, an interesting move which frames her as the central character and opens the floodgates on her inner world. For the first time we see Ramona as a fleshed-out character (as ironic as that is to say when describing a 2D animation), and she has complex thoughts and feelings about Scott, her exes, her friends, and her job delivering DVDs for Netflix.
She also dyes her hair at the beginning of every episode, as both a nod to the original and a narrative device for allowing change. And that, of course, is the theme for the series: both metatextually and inherently.
The film about the animation about the movie about the comic
In episode five, while Ramona is still on the hunt for Scott and his killer, Scott’s housemate Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) writes a screenplay based on his eye-witness account of Scott’s fight with evil ex number one, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha).
The film immediately goes into production, and we are treated to a documentary-style account of how it gets made. Things get really funny when we realise Neil’s film bears a strong resemblance to Wright’s 2010 Scott Pilgrim vs The World.
Perhaps the best bit of meta-text comes with Chris Evans as Lucas Lee, the role he first played in 2010 and now reprises in Takes Off. In vs The World, Lee is a Hollywood action star with a giant ego and a tiny brain. This role gave us endlessly quotable quips like ‘The next click you hear is me hanging up … and the one after that is me pulling the trigger’, and was almost prescient in predicting the trajectory of Evans’ career (remember that this was pre Captain America).
Now in Takes Off, Lucas Lee gets hired to play a version of himself in Young Neil’s Scott Pilgrim film – so it’s Chris Evans reprising Lucas Lee playing Lucas Lee who was originally played by Chris Evans in 2010 but now the character is much more about him than it is about Hollywood in general. Whew.
Everything old is new again
Swapping out Scott Pilgrim’s hero’s journey for an almost parodical story of the new ways vs the old ways, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is overflowing with layers of irony and self-reflexivity. Through both grappling with the 2010 film’s outdated themes (including the dating a high schooler bit, and the diminishing of Ramona as a manic pixie dream girl) and by literally having Scott and Ramona confront their past/future selves, there is an overall sense of addressing regrets and ‘getting things right’.
But this isn’t Wrights or O’Malley’s attempt to retcon the Scott Pilgrim narrative. Every misstep made by its past iterations is confronted and presented with an alternative, not to erase the past but to offer a complimentary take on the series. It’s done in such a way that one could read the graphic novel, see the film, and then stream the series without feeling like one is the ‘correct’ version.
As a final thought: I really want to see the fully-staged version of a Scott Pilgrim musical.