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Netflix's fantastic new Scott Pilgrim adaptation isn't an adaptation

‘Scott Pilgrim Takes Off’ starts like an exquisite cover version but is actually a thrillingly new take on the source material

‘Scott Pilgrim Takes Off’
‘Scott Pilgrim Takes Off’

Nearly every episode of Netflix’s excellent animated series Scott Pilgrim Takes Off begins with an elaborate hair-colour montage: the show’s heroine Ramona Flowers squeezes bleach out of a tube, applies bright colours to her duotone hair, and wipes the fogged-up mirror clean. Each morning she emerges a different flavour. It’s like Kate Winslet’s Clementine from the 2004 masterpiece Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Prime Video) who used her green/red/orange/blue hair to signal the state of her heart.

That’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t put past Ramona—or maybe this is simply hi-vis colouring, so she can be spotted while rollerblading across an intra-dimensional highway. A highway inside an unsuspecting boy’s brain.

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Like that boy, I appear to have gotten ahead of myself. His name is Scott Pilgrim, and he first showed up in a graphic novel series that began in 2004. Written and illustrated by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the books told the story of a clueless young bass-player who falls for this bright-haired girl, then realises that in order to be with her, he would have to fight her seven evil exes. The metaphor was straightforward and videogamey: these arguments turned into full-blown Dragonball Z-style battles, where vanquished players turned into coins for winning players to collect. The books are clever, sarcastic, surprisingly introspective, and even achingly romantic.

A 2010 adaptation, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (JioCinema), directed by Edgar Wright, faced the Game Of Thrones dilemma: the film ran out of novel. Coming out before the final Scott Pilgrim volume, the film ends with a disappointingly simplistic climax. Visually, it’s ground-breakingly inventive, but, in compressing the events of six books, loses out on the increasingly nuanced subtext of the later volumes. It’s a riot—but could have been more.

More is what we finally have with this series, written by O’Malley with BenDavid Grabinski. It starts like an exquisite cover version—frames and lines from the books spoken by the superbly picked actors from the film, everything gorgeous thanks to Japanese anime studio Science Saru. Then—POW!—the narrative shifts. The song isn’t the same. The original characters are around, but this is a thrillingly new take on the source material.

The 8-bit heart is in place. I was Scott’s age when I first read him, and I’m older than the show’s bearded future version of Scott — “Old Scott” is 37 — while I watch the show, and it’s pure time-travel. The stakes of first dates and relationship backstories are heightened again, as I watch these kids figure out their lives and loves. The particularly dim Young Neil, for instance, decides he is now a cinephile, and does a Paul McCartney (“I wrote a feature-length screenplay in my sleep”) by accident, then wears a David Cronenberg shirt during an episode about the making of his movie.

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off solves for Main Character Syndrome. In the books and film, everything (including Scott) is Scott-centered, but this series is about everyone. We get to know Ramona better and unravel what led her to that rogue’s gallery of exes, and we see the exes themselves, stumbling to find their own way. Some just want to escape that ‘evil’ branding.

The cast is astonishing. Chris Evans, Kieran Culkin, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwarzman, Brie Larson, Alison Pill and Aubrey Plaza have an infectiously good time playing characters that may be absurd—Satya Bhabha, for instance, plays Matthew Patel, an ex who spells out his overarching desire to be the main character—yet this stunningly empathetic show cares about every single one of them.

In the middle are Scott (Michael Cera) and Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He’s excited yet unperceptive, eager to blame everything on his exes, while she, far brighter than him, is confronting her own past and her own patterns, realising her exes might not be as bad. “I’ve dated a lot of people who are suspect,” she admits. Yet they all count, the people you left behind — and vice versa.

The show looks dazzling, true to the books—to Scott’s big round eyes and Scorsese eyebrows—yet unique, with sprawling action setpieces set across time and space, and, when in a video rental library, across different movie genres. The aesthetic is delightful, with virtual reality headsets in the future basically designed as giant Viewmasters. The backgrounds are beautiful and old-school, in contrast with the moving elements. Sunbeams hang in the air like cobwebs, a red carpet rolls out of a black limousine like a tongue, and rock music erupts from mics and guitars in the form of furious little lightning bolts. As it should.

Relationships are relative. Sometimes we have an evil ex, sometimes we are an evil ex. It all depends on where—and when—we are standing. When a lover punches a hole in the moon for you, it can be the most romantic thing in the world, or the most horrifying. Or both.

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is ingenious and sincere, with a punchy soundtrack and real feelings. Plus there’s a song about bread making you fat. The characters are naive, the metaphors are strong, and the lesson seems to be that we should never plan it all. Leave enough room in your head for the person of your dreams—or even just your dreams—to run around.

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen

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