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Review: “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off”: More Than a Fresh Coat of Paint

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It may be hard to believe, but Scott Pilgrim, in some iteration, has been around for almost two decades. The cult following for the series, born from its memetic one-liners and video game/anime love letter aesthetic, is oftentimes quick to distance themselves from its namesake. Scott Pilgrim is a goof, a manchild, a cheater, runs from responsibility  – he certainly grows a lot through the series and somewhat through the original condensed film, but there’s a dedicated part of the fandom that considers its protagonist its weakest link. So what does the series have to offer after Scott Pilgrim takes off?

The first episode of the anime, while not immediately revealing all its tricks, is pretty much from the first minute a complete return to form and a Scott Pilgrim fan’s dream come true – while Adult Swim and Titmouse teased the reality of an animated series with Scott Pilgrim vs. the Animation back in 2010, Science Saru’s vision effectively captures both the anime and Western comic influences of the series. As implied earlier, the series’ twist, and where it’s attracted the most discourse online, is that after what’s mostly a straightforward comic adaptation in the first episode, Scott Pilgrim indeed takes off – like, disappears. Dies? Disintegrates? Who’s got the answers? His new girlfriend – at the time – Ramona is left to investigate his disappearance herself, meeting old faces while giving the audience the chance to see a timeline in which the world goes on without Scott.

There was a large amount of attention and criticism connected to the fact that Scott wasn’t seen in the show for some time after this. “How do you have a Scott Pilgrim anime and get rid of Scott Pilgrim?” For one thing, the show is still about Scott – characters are constantly talking about him, whether through investigating his disappearance or the in-universe film about Scott that’s inexplicably being made at the same time. Another matter, it’s clear that a lot more was put into this project than “do Scott Pilgrim but anime” – a good chunk of people would have been satisfied with that, but chances are that the lowest-effort project wouldn’t have had the pure creative passion behind the story and performances here.

The story of how Scott Pilgrim Takes Off came together has been largely attributed to the original film cast getting back together from their love and nostalgia for it, and you can hear that enjoyment in the English dub. Every returning cast member nails their performance, and even going from live-action to animation, you can tell how in the 13 years since the original film many of them have evolved as actors. Mae Whitman shows off her VA chops here as evil ex Roxy, who somehow has more life and energy breathed into her animated form than even her live-action counterpart’s infamous “You punched me in the boob! Prepare to die, obviously.”

The soundtrack, while not quite as explosive as the film’s opening scene, definitely stays true to its roots. While the opening is a J-rock track, the majority of the soundtrack consists of licensed English music, capturing the gaming and rock vibes perfectly with a few surprises (the only other anime that would break out “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash is maybe JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure). There are some nods to the film soundtrack as well, such as Metric from “Black Sheep” returning for a rock cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You”. Just like “Black Sheep,” the song captures the stage energy of Envy Adams – even at Scott’s “funeral” – in a way an info dump could never muster.

But the most interesting part of this new timeline the series explores is how each of Scott’s former friends and love interests get on in a world in which he’s mere biopic fodder. To a casual viewer, especially one who’s only seen the film, they become less “Scott’s friends” and a full-fledged cast with individual growth and even some interesting love interests that previously had only existed as crack ship fanfiction.

Two former background players who stand out here are Wallace and Todd, who get their spotlight on the cast of the in-universe Scott Pilgrim film – Todd plays Scott, and Wallace steps in to play himself as he feels he can do a better job. This leads to him making out with fake-Scott-Todd on-set – yes, it’s as absurd in the series as it sounds here. The two develop a passionate relationship that’s over almost as soon as it starts. Wallace goes into the situation, as he does many, basically just to see what happens, while Todd is convinced he feels “sparks.” (These same sparks are visually represented, and are actually important for Scott and Ramona later on. Isn’t animation fun?)

This ties back into the version of his character that we see in the film – the majority of that screen time that isn’t snarky one-liners alludes to the amount of bedhopping he does, to the point of ultimately kicking Scott out to comfortably have his endeavors “every night of the week.” In the anime, we see that Wallace has this mentality broken down by a seemingly casual event that proves to him that sparks do exist. While every incarnation of Wallace has been a fan favorite, it’s nice to see positive queer representation and a version of him that grows in relationship prowess along with Scott.

With Ramona leading the investigation into Scott’s disappearance, she’s the character we naturally spend the most time with. In the film, while there’s certainly a lot to like about her, the film only has time to scratch the surface of her character. As a result, there’s a lot that’s simply alluded to or simply not explained in the film, such as the “superhighway” that Ramona skates through in Scott’s dreams. This condensing is somewhat understandable for the film, as it likely knows the leeway it’ll get with its quirky aesthetic and only needs to set up enough about Ramona for Scott’s motivation.

Spending this much time with Ramona allows the audience to see not only her as a fully fleshed and flawed character but that the “seven evil exes,” a goofy action setup, are considerably varied levels of evil, especially without Scott around. She’s forced to face her past head-on, which doesn’t entail headbutting it into coins this time.

Without spoiling anything, Scott and Ramona are ultimately put on their paths in a way very different from the original comic and film. It requires both of them to acknowledge their flaws and fears and what they have to trust the other person with to break the cycle. It’s a powerful conclusion, one that will especially hit home for fans who have followed the entire set of characters through their messy battles and relationships over almost two decades.

Overall, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off serves as a positive example of subverting expectations, taking what could have easily been a minimal-effort nostalgia grab and turning it into a full-fledged conclusion for both old and new fans alike.

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is available streaming on Netflix.