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Scott Pilgrim Takes Off Review: You Can (Not) Remake

  • The animation and music are as great as you'd expect ...
  • ... While the story is something you won't expect at all
  • No idea how this will play if you aren't already a fan

Between 2007 and 2021, Studio Khara revisited Hideaki Anno's classic mecha anime "Neon Genesis Evangelion" through a quadrilogy of "Rebuild of Evangelion" movies. For the first movie and a half, the film series looked like a straightforward remake of the show with only cosmetic changes, so faithful to the original as to feel basically pointless. Then it took a series of turns further and further diverging from the show, until by the fourth and final movie, it was a completely new and exciting story that nonetheless connected with and commented on the history of the franchise. Because so much of its meaning is in this meta-commentary, I couldn't recommend "Rebuild of Evangelion" to "Evangelion" neophytes, but for the hardcore fans, it proved far more rewarding than it appeared at first glance.

I have no doubt in my mind that "Scott Pilgrim" creator Bryan Lee O'Malley and his co-writer BenDavid Grabinski were thinking of "Rebuild of Evangelion" when they were planning "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off," Netflix's new not-a-remake, not-a-sequel "Scott Pilgrim" anime. From the show's marketing, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a straightforward adaptation of O'Malley's graphic novels, which would have been worthwhile enough given how different and arguably better the book series' conclusion is compared to Edgar Wright's 2010 live-action film "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World." The entire cast of that movie reprises their roles in the English version of the anime, further contributing to the sense that this is going to be something familiar.

The first episode of "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" will feel mostly recognizable to those who've read or watched "Scott Pilgrim" before. Once again, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is the Canadian 23-year-old bassist of the band Sex Bob-Omb, dating high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) but instantly falling for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman he saw in his dreams — and suddenly thrust into fighting her seven evil exes. Aside from a few different choices of pop culture references, fans know exactly what to expect beat-by-beat for most of this first half-hour. And then they won't.

A shift in perspective

It's a common opinion that the least interesting part of the whole "Scott Pilgrim" franchise is Scott Pilgrim himself. Yes, he's supposed to be a frustrating and problematic protagonist, and the story is about addressing his flaws, but even so, basically every other character in the series is more enjoyable to watch or read about than Scott. For those who wish "Scott Pilgrim" was more about the supporting cast, "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" is for you.

This time, Ramona is the primary viewpoint character for much of the series, and her relationships with the evil exes get explored in greater depth. Though this isn't the "Scott Pilgrim: Brotherhood" take they might have been expecting or hoping for, comic fans will be happy that the characterizations of Roxie Richter (Mae Whitman) and the Katayanagi Twins (Julian Cihi) hew closer to the comics than their more stereotypical depictions in the film. We get to explore the villains' strange lives beyond just battling Scott; I particularly love what the anime does with Lucas Lee (Chris Evans). The character to get the biggest upgrade is Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), who was more or less a nonentity in previous versions but is now my dumbass cinephile son whom I must protect at all costs.

One thing that hasn't changed is the setting. What was a contemporary story 20 years ago is now a 2000s-era period piece. As a millennial, I am still processing the phenomenon of 2000s nostalgia becoming a thing, especially since "Scott Pilgrim" was already playing on nostalgia for earlier decades in its retro video game aesthetics, but this nostalgia play is preferable to trying to modernize the setting of "Scott Pilgrim." And it's more than just nostalgia: If the comic captured the experience of being a clueless young adult, "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" allows for greater reflection on this experience from the perspective of someone older and maybe a tiny bit less clueless.

Subs vs. dubs

Netflix's history of promoting any adult-oriented sci-fi cartoon as "anime" might have confused the issue, but "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" is actually anime. The writers might be American and Canadian, but the production was handled by Science Saru, the Japanese studio behind such modern classics as "Devilman Crybaby" and "Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!" So this leads to a weird question you might not have even considered: Should you watch "Scott Pilgrim" subbed or dubbed?

Netflix lists English as the show's "original" language, and reuniting the movie's cast for the English version has been a major selling point. Switching back and forth between languages, however, I noticed something funny: The animation is timed to match the Japanese dialogue perfectly. While some members of the English cast have voice-acting experience, none of the leads have prior anime dubbing experience, resulting in timing that's ever so slightly off — with the exception of the musical performances, which play in English regardless of what language you're watching the show in — and feels like a dub even if it's allegedly the "original." It's an enjoyable show in either language, but the stronger comedic timing and more effectively exaggerated performances make this an anime I prefer to watch in Japanese.

In the Japanese version, the cast is led by "Attack on Titan" star Hiro Shimono as Scott and "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure" voice actor Fairouz Ai as Ramona. The cast also features Yûichi Nakamura as Lucas Lee, Naomi Ohzora as Roxie Richter, Shunsuke Takeuchi as the Katayanagi Twins, Aoi Koga as Knives, and Yuto Kawasaki as MVP Young Neil.

There's only so much I can really say about "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" without getting into spoilers, but suffice it to say I found it delightful. It's beautiful to look at and fun to listen to, the big twists are exciting, and the jokes hit the perfect sweet spot between cleverness and sheer stupidity to reach maximum hilarity. I have no clue how this will play to audiences who aren't already "Scott Pilgrim" fans — it's not as if it would be hard to follow without background knowledge the way "Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake" is, but it is definitely playing with expectations in a way that might not have the same meaning without background. But not every show needs to be for everyone, and if "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" is for you, these eight episodes are going to fly by — and you're going to want more.

"Scott Pilgrim Takes Off" comes to Netflix on November 17.