Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers in the Netflix series “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.”Credit…Netflix
Did you know that at some point in the ’90s there were two separate, very different Sonic the Hedgehog TV series running simultaneously? “And the same guy played Sonic in both shows,” Scott Pilgrim, the doofy 23-year-old layabout of “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” shares, unprompted, to his love interest, Ramona Flowers. “Isn’t that wild? The same guy playing two different versions of the same guy??”
Totally wild. It’s almost like how the same guy (Michael Cera) has now played two different versions of this same guy (Scott Pilgrim) — first in Edgar Wright’s damn-near-perfect 2010 film, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and now in this underwhelming Netflix anime adaptation, both based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s beloved graphic novel series.
In the books and in the film, Scott discovers that Ramona, a girl he’s been seeing in his dreams (because of a convenient subspace highway that runs through his head, of course) is real, but he can’t date her until he defeats her seven deadly exes in epic video-game-style faceoffs.
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” isn’t a reboot or a sequel; it begins almost identically to the film but takes a sharp turn at the end of the first episode that sets it up as essentially an alternate-reality scenario. Here, Ramona and her exes take center stage, and though the series is still set, like the film, in a Toronto from “not too long ago,” this new story feels more grown up, often at the expense of its humor.
The film, which condensed the six-book series into a svelte 112 minutes of addictive original songs and millennial- and Gen X-friendly references, more baldly satirized hipster culture and the cliché ways in which young adults sabotage their relationships and fail to hold themselves accountable for their knuckle-headed decisions.
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” directed by Abel Góngora, is more dutiful in its depiction of toxic relationship behaviors and more generous in redeeming its characters — even its antagonists — through their own arcs of personal growth.
Too bad those are also the blandest story lines. There are some intriguing new reveals and romantic pairings, along with jamming music from Scott’s band, Sex Bob-Omb (original songs by Anamanaguchi), but the bulk of the eight-episode series feels like a filler arc or, to use an anime term, OVAs (original video animations).
The jokes are either wholly lackluster or slightly tweaked and watered-down versions of what appeared in the movie. The pacing lags too, and though most of the film’s stars return to voice their animated counterparts — including Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza and Jason Schwartzman — the performances often land like bad English dubs, with any emotiveness muted and intonation flatlined.
Anime is a cozy fit for O’Malley’s work. But for as much as “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” is conversant in the medium’s visual motifs, gags and gestures, it doesn’t fully take advantage of the absurdity that the format allows. Or at least not until the ending; in its last two episodes, the series finally exhibits the kind of imagination one would expect from a story featuring superpowered vegans and spying robots.
So I won’t say “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” completely fails to launch, because it offers a wholesome sense of closure for fans of the books and of the film. But the series never fully succeeds either. The characters may have grown, but in this incarnation, the story itself is stuck in a state of arrested development.