Hardly any original graphic novel across the 21st century has had the same cultural impact as “Scott Pilgrim.” It’s astonishing that the action-romance series by Canadian Bryan Lee O’Malley, about a slacker bass player fighting his new girlfriend’s seven evil exes, has become a transmedia sensation. Scott Pilgrim’s precious little franchise has smashed miscellaneous mediums to a KO in each adaptation it received—a six-book series, Edgar Wright’s cult-classic 2010 film adaptation, and a beat-em-up video game so nice, it was released twice—with each iteration incredible in their own right. As the franchise enjoys cult status, it's only fitting that Mr. Pilgrim's next step in his medium-hopping conquest would be an anime.
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” retells the classic story with more loyalty to the source material than the abridged film, and the entire movie cast reprising their roles, O’Malley and co-writer BenDavid Grabinski pull a “Connor’s Wedding,” drastically changing the variables to service a bolder new take with all its familiar players.
The series starts similarly to each iteration’s opening: Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is alone in his dreams, whining about being alone. As he plummets into a forsaken pit of despair, Pilgrim sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious rainbow-haired woman, roller-skating through his mind. Instantly, he becomes smitten, describing her as “the girl of his dreams” to his roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin). By day, the unemployed Pilgrim jams as a bass player in an indie rock band, Sex Bomb-omb, alongside anxiety-ridden Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and his misanthrope high school ex-girlfriend Kim (Alison Pill) while his obsessive 17-year-old high-school girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), watches him rehearse with Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), Stephen’s dimwitted roommate.
At Stephen’s ex-girlfriend Julie’s (Aubrey Plaza) party, Scott meets Ramona in real life and eventually asks her out. After an enchanting first date, Scott invites her to see his band play. Scott and Ramona’s newfound joy becomes the dismay of Ramona’s most recent ex, billionaire Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), establishing the League of Evil Exes, a group of powerful individuals Ramona dated in her past—musical theater wannabe Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), skater-boy hot-shot actor Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), disloyal vegan Todd (Brandon Routh), ninja Roxie (Mae Whitman), and the Katayanagi twins (Julian Cihi), in response. As Sex Bomb-omb is about to perform, Patel blasts into the venue and challenges Scott to battle.
Without giving anything away, a significant change to the inciting incident alters everything and shatters any expectations anyone would’ve speculated. The following seven episodes ride on a continuously unpredictable wavelength that points the show in a new direction, assisted by its remarkable animation from Japanese-based studio Science Saru. The skilled overseas animators bring Lee O’Malley’s illustrations to life with incredible hand-drawn detail for each frame that seems crafted with passion and love. Longtime in-house director Abel Góngora (“Star Wars: Visions - T0-B1”) perfects the mix between expressional humor and top-notch action, similar to his brief work on the underrated Cartoon Network 8-bit styled action comedy “O.K: KO Let’s Be Heroes.”
Incredible animation quality aside, “Takes Off” greatest strength is the story’s reconfiguration, putting Ramona in the driver’s seat and Scott in the trunk. Considering Scott’s new position, the writing duo meticulously plays with other elements, allowing all the side characters to show off their dimensions, starting with Flowers. It’s as if O’Malley wanted to do right by Flowers for so long, especially after the many “manic pixie dream-girl” accusations following the film’s release. The series finally gives her the long-awaited agency she deserves.
As Player One, Ramona and her newfound role convert the story into a vastly compelling action-noir with her and her rogue gallery of exes at the center. Much like its source, each episode gives each ex a specific focus in endlessly surprising, occasionally meta, and often incredibly funny avenues. Even though they’re animated, the exes have never been so close to humans. One episode, "Ramona Rents a Video," is a monumental turning point in the story’s mature intent. This series-best episode vastly reconstructs a primary beat revolving around Ramona brawling with her only female ex, Roxie, and brings it to a sincere, poignant realm worthy of great emotion.
Knives Chau (retaining her crown as the best character across each iteration) also stands out with a substantial upgrade to her character through a fantastic independence arc, which is elevated by returning Ellen Wong’s spirited voice performance. But it’s not just Wong who embraces the animated persona in her vocal performance; the entire cast adopts the show’s zany anime style and is spectacular, sounding as if they’re the same age as when they shot the film. It’s also beneficial that each performer has had voice-acting experience or comes from a voice-acting background (that’s how Cera got started) while some veteran character actors appear in great guest spots.
And yet, at its core, “Takes Off” is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s show. Her performance as Ramona captures the source material’s spirit of the character with unexplored humor and natural emotion.
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” is a phenomenal stand-alone addition to the franchise as excellent as the many incarnations before it. Amid remakes and reboots, this rare level-up cleverly reexamines its entire story with a profound twist without sacrificing any pieces of its identity. It sees its audience as the adults they are and threads nuance to its eternal lost twenty-somethings case study substantial enough to bridge newcomers and its veteran fanbase. With its most stylistic form yet, “Scott Pilgrim” accomplishes the most human rendering of this story yet to the extent that I teared up by its final needle drop. Like with how it felt reading the novels as a kid, and when I saw the movie opening weekend (yes, I was one of the few) with my late dad, this show is like falling in love for the first time. Those reignited sparks burn oh so brightly.
Full series screened for review. All eight episodes of "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" are now streaming on Netflix.