Something my brother said as we were leaving the movie theater: “Man, I’m glad that they made that into a movie, because when I try to explain Scott Pilgrim to people, it sounds soooo dumb!”
I could totally relate to that sentiment and, if you’re already a fan of the graphic novels that were the basis for the new film, I’m sure that you probably could too. Those who are not may be asking “So, what is it all about?” Well, Scott Pilgrim is this unemployed, Canadian twenty-something bass player who begins dating Ramona Flowers, an American hipster girl on Roller Blades (how one can remain hip while on Roller Blades is never quite explained, but it manages to work ). It is soon discovered that for them to continue to see each other, Scott has to fight and defeat Ramona‘s ex-boyfriends. It sounds sorta dumb, right? I know, but there are a million reasons why its not and a million reasons as to why it is, in fact, one of my most favorite things ever. To read through Scott Pilgrim‘s 6 manga-like volumes is to get an honest look at creator Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s tastes and hobbies. If you have even the slightest bit of a nerd streak in you, you will instantly be able to relate. You get references to comic books, manga, video games, and indie-rock… and the fighting ex-boyfriends thing? It sounds silly, but look, its a metaphor. Scott is trying to stack up against Ramona‘s past relationships. The series itself is a really great read.
Now there’s always a danger when a beloved comic book gets adapted into a movie. Hell hath no fury like a scorned comic book geek with a modem. When Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was first announced, a lot of people began monitoring its development nervously. With Micheal Cera backlash at its peak, things got even more tense when he was announced as the lead. Still, there remained faith in director Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), and O’Malley‘s involvement/endorsement of the project. The biggest fear, I think, was the potential to lose much of the lovable quirkiness found in the comics. How much of the video game and comic book tributes would be lost? These elements are integral to the feel of the series and one of the keys to its success. A romantic comedy is all the more fun when a “save point” magically appears in the corner of the room!
My concern was quickly addressed at the very opening scene, which is a perfect parody of the classic start screens we know and love from the old 8-bit NES cartridges. In fact, during the sneak preview, an audience member shouted “Someone hit Start!” and I think that, after that, everyone let their last bits of skepticism fall away, as we all sat back, ready to take the ride. So, If you’re worried about the quirk, nostalgia, and homages being lost… don’t. They are all there and in full force, which I believe is a good move. I think that Wright was perceptive enough to recognize the importance and power of these aspects. Zelda music plays as Scott Pilgrim walks into a bathroom. Scott bangs out the battle menu theme from Final Fantasy 2 on his bass. There are “1-Up” icons, and combo-breakers. Sound effects fly across the screen in huge block letters and little text boxes appear from time to time. The scenes even transition in a jumpy and frantic manner, as if you were scanning from one panel to the next. (Some of O’Malley’s actual drawings even appear in flash-back scenes). It was good to see these things in the movie and to see them done well. This sort of nostalgia has power; a lot of power. To give you an example: my Dad has NEVER even played The Legend of Zelda, yet to this day, I swear he can still whistle the theme song. It’s that joy you feel when you reminisce with a friend about how Ghosts and Goblins was “IMPOSSIBLE” to beat. Or when you dig through your old comic collection and find that issue where Aquaman‘s hand gets eaten by piranhas. Or when you listen to an old Modest Mouse album and remember that awkward time when you believed right down to your soul that listening to an interesting band made you an interesting person. This is what sells this movie to so many people. As you watch it, you can almost hear a reassuring voice saying “Hey man, we all struggled with Ghosts and Goblins!”
One issue is that, rather than missing the essential flourishes, the movie seems to be almost completely focused on flourish, even when it comes at the cost of… well, everything else. Although great, tributes, nostalgia and gimmicks are all just seasoning. At the heart, the Scott Pilgrim series is still a coming of age, love story. And its a well told one, full of great characters. This isn’t so clear in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. In fact, the relationship between Scott and Ramona barely seems to exist. You’d hardly even know that they were dating if they didn’t explicitly say, “We’re dating.” Without that established connection, you don’t really understand why Scott‘s fighting so damn hard. The cast of characters are pretty much all represented in the film, but in an unfortunately diminished light. Friend/drummer, Kim Pine is reduced to a grump in the background with hardly any lines. Stephen Stills, the guitarist/talent of his group, is little more than a nervous wreck. Scott‘s relationship with his ex-girlfriend Envy Adams is barely even explored. The only character who seems to retain any of their charm is Pilgrim‘s “cool gay roommate” Wallace Wells, enhanced by the terrific performance of Keiren Culkin.
Unfortunately, I cannot completely divorce my experience with the comics from that of the film. I understand that the film is an adaption and was always intended to go its own way. In fact, the script was actually written before the books were even finished. I suppose that I think of it similar to Akira, the groundbreaking and universally respected animated film. However, as a feature length film, Akira could never hope to contain the epic scope of the original manga series and, once you know what could have been there and isn’t, the film then feels a little empty and flat. So, if Scott Pilgrim‘s transition to the big screen has any real flaw, I’d say it’s the attempt to cram all 6 volumes into one feature length film. There is simply too much cut out, forcing it to becomes a different story. While I enjoyed the live-action version of the Scott Pilgrim epic, it simply does not contain the complexity of characters or the year-long time-frame, necessary for those characters to grow and change (in the movie, the events take place in something closer to a week). I had a good time watching it, but it just doesn’t hit home the way the comic does. I’m probably gonna go back and actually pay for a ticket to watch it again. So, it is a film worth watching, but it can never be the comic and, for that, it will always be a bit lesser.
[SIDE NOTE: I feel that it’s important to mention that a friend, who had never even heard of the comics before, saw the film with us and he straight up loved it.]