Warner Bros. // 2004 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // January 25th, 2005
Shaggy: This is tied for the most terrifying day of my life!
Velma: Tied with what?
Shaggy: Every other freaking day of my life!
Director Raja Gosnell and his production team returns the live-action Scooby franchise to its animated roots, but is Mystery Inc. still too hip for Coolsville?
It's the social event of the year, as celebrated ghost busters Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr., Summer Catch), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Velma (Linda Cardellini, Freaks and Geeks), Shaggy (Matthew Lillard, Thir13en Ghosts), and their trusted CGI canine companion Scooby-Doo (voiced by Neil Fanning, Ghost Ship) are honored with a museum exhibit, showcasing the costumes and weaponry recovered from their most memorable cases. Of course, someone always wants to steal the spotlight. But this particular party crasher has an axe to grind and intends to bring down Mystery Inc. as nothing more than fan-seeking frauds. Granting supernatural life to the costumes of these former fearmongers, the evil one succeeds in putting the gang on the defensive, turning the residents of Coolsville against them, and -- more damaging than anything -- causing each of these legendary crime fighters to doubt each other as well as themselves.
A live action adaptation of any animated or comic inspired property is risky business, one often met with mixed results at best. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man -- Very Good. Robert Altman's (Popeye) -- Good. Peter Hewitt's Garfield: The Movie -- Not so good. Des McAnuff's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle -- Oy vey. The list goes on and on, with critics and fans lining up on both sides of the argument. As Judge Bill Gibron points out in his review of the first Scooby-Doo film: "It tries to be faithful to the cartoon from whence it spawned, and yet it also wants to be hip, cool, and happening." And it's in this attitude upgrade that most of these films falter.
In spite of the critical mud hurled against Scooby-Doo, Warner Bros. hands the keys to the Mystery Machine back to editor-turned-director Raja Gosnell (Big Momma's House), who has reassembled his team -- screenwriter and former Troma mainstay James Gunn (Terror Firmer), editor Kent Beyda (Dude, Where's My Car?), production designer and Tim Burton protégé Bill Boes (Sleepy Hollow) -- with one exception. Noted action/thriller cinematographer Oliver Wood (The Bourne Identity) takes over the camera from David Eggby (Pitch Black), perhaps to lend more mystery and tension to the film.
This time, Gosnell and company draw inspiration and structure from the gang's adventures in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, a potential goldmine of nostalgia for Gen-Xers (many of whom now have kids of their own) and legions of new Scoob-enthusiasts from the series's run on Cartoon Network. But can they overcome the faults of the first film and pull together a story compelling enough to make it work? For the most part, yes.
For Scooby fans like myself who have seen each episode multiple times, Gunn's incorporation of characters such as The Black Knight ("What a Night for a Knight"), The Miner 49er ("Mine Your Own Business"), The Ghost of Captain Cutler ("A Clue for Scooby-Doo"), and the Pterodactyl Ghost ("Hang in There, Scooby-Doo") is a brilliant move. The adapted use of the Skelemen -- previously nothing more than two muscleheads in black spandex -- as incomprehensible, one-eyed, skeletal Mr. Potato Heads is genius and provides for some hilarious comic chase sequences. And the creation of a bar, The Faux Ghost (whose logo is Charlie the Robot, from "Foul Play in Funland"), as a hangout for all the crooks the gang busted over the years, like CL Magnus (Redbeard's Ghost, "Go Away Ghost Ship") and Aggie Wilkins (The Ozark Witch, "The Ozark Witch Switch"), is an inspired twist. Even the little details, like Old Man Wickle's place being the mansion from the opening credits of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Season Two, and all the different monster and ghost costumes found in the museum (fully captured in the bonus features) shows just how far the production team was willing to go to make this as authentic a Scooby tale as possible.
Apart from the trip down memory lane, what makes Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed work is its genuine sincerity. For a team like Scoob and the gang that somehow always managed to come out on top (despite a multitude of screwups) to be shunned and exiled proves to be a most humbling and soul-searching experience. Each character goes through his/her own crisis of faith, something much too deep for any Saturday morning cartoon to ever delve into. Shaggy and Scoob feel like nothing more than a hindrance, Velma questions her self-confidence, Fred second-guesses the choices he's made in life, and Daphne...well, Daphne analyzes her wardrobe. Even some of their former enemies show a humanity rarely witnessed in these adaptations. It's a well-crafted plot line that takes these characters out of their comfort zone and down roads not often traveled.
Unfortunately, the payoff doesn't equal the set-up, with Gunn and Gosnell opting instead for the ridiculous but standard Hanna-Barbera resolution. But, as is often the case, the journey itself is what makes the film enjoyable. And, thankfully, there is no sign of Scrappy anywhere!
In terms of performances, they're pretty much on par with the first film. Freddie Prinze Jr. is still unable to showcase any kind of believable range of emotion, wasting what was written as a powerful, character development scene in which Fred rediscovers his life's purpose. Sarah Michelle Gellar, god love her, is basically Buffy with red hair and an all-purpose wardrobe. Never before has "Danger Prone" Daphne showcased such prowess in the martial arts, let alone doing it all in four-inch heels. CGI Scooby continues to be little more than a distraction, although the effects team did go to great lengths to enhance the lighting used to define him. While former stuntman turned actor Neil Fanning tries hard to recapture the cadence and character made famous by Don Messick, the sequences such as Scooby leading a disco dance party are disturbing at best. And Alicia Silverstone...let's just say you'll be happy she has very little screen time.
The real workhorses of the film are Matthew Lillard, Linda Cardellini, Seth Green, and Peter Boyle. Matthew is absolutely brilliant, not only in channeling the essence of Casey Kasem's Shaggy, but in his remarkable ability to play off a character that wasn't even on set (you'll get to see some of this in the bonus materials). The Screen Actor's Guild should create an award for Best Actor Playing Opposite a CGI Character and make Matthew the inaugural recipient. It's amazing what he has been able to accomplish with this role. Next up, the fantastic Linda Cardellini, who takes everyone's favorite nerd girl and evolves her as a woman coming into her own. Two scenes in particular to watch for: her heartfelt confession to Shag and Scoob while hiding from the Skelemen, and her confrontation with Patrick (Seth Green) upon discovering the villainous mastermind's lair. Contrast this performance with her roles on E.R. and Freaks and Geeks and it is easy to see the depth and range of her acting skills. Seth Green has a wonderful turn as Patrick, the museum curator and paramour for Ms. Dinkley. Seth is perfect at playing these quiet, kind characters with gallons of subtext bubbling just beneath the surface. You'll see elements of Oz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Scott Evil (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), but that is Seth playing Seth, comfortable in his own skin and exceptional at what he does. The final piece of this puzzle belong to the great Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond), a first-class comedian and character actor who can take even the smallest roles and make them leap from the screen with charismatic sincerity.
You can have a knockout script, but without a skilled cast to throw the punches, the film doesn't stand a chance. Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed lands more jabs than it misses, and wins on a TKO.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is what we've come to expect from new theatrical releases -- crisp and clean with no noticeable digital enhancement. The imagery is bold and vibrant, with exceptional use of blues, reds, and yellows for our heroes and a plethora of browns, blacks, and greens for the bad guys. The supernatural effects are exquisitely done, most notably the fight sequences and each appearance of the Skelemen. But, for whatever reason, most of the extended Scooby-Doo scenes (ones which focus most on him) feel cheap and under-developed. One look at the "Scooby to the Rescue" sequence in the film's final act and you'll see exactly what I mean. Bringing on Oliver Wood as director of photography has given Monsters Unleashed a grand and dark intensity the first film was lacking. This one felt more like a mystery, and Bill Boes set designs deserve a great deal of the credit. The enveloping Dolby 5.1 mix provides a surprising nocturnal ambience. The vocal tracks are clear (you may need subtitles for Scooby at times), and David Newman's musical score captures the wackiness of the original series. I always enjoy the voice casting on the foreign language tracks, as it lends another level of comedy to the proceedings. But the novelty quickly wears thin.
The bonus materials are surprisingly sub-par. Seven minutes of deleted scenes, with or without commentary by director Raja Gosnell, features an extended sequence inside The Faux Ghost bar, Scooby chasing his tail, Scooby imitating Patrick (Seth Green), a primitive 2D chase sequence with the Skelemen, a trimmed Skelemen bit with Velma, Matthew pouring his heart out to a non-existent Scooby, and the Black Knight's museum break-in. While these clips give a little insight into the production team's creative process, a feature commentary would have been much more valuable. The "Triple Threat Featurette" is a ten-minute mini-doc in which Scooby-Doo (Neil Fanning) finds a camera and takes it backstage to capture the sets, stunts, and visual effects. "True Ghoul Hollywood Stories" is a six-minute waste of film, in which we get the inside look at just why these villains turned to a life of crime. The "Dancing Dog" is a five-minute analysis of Scooby's dancing skills. Two interactive games: 1) the cursor driven "Monsters Unleashed Challenge" where Shag and Scoob track down clues, and 2) The Mystery of the Missing Pants, a ridiculous Easter egg hunt to discover who stole Shaggy's pants. Two music videos and DVD-ROM links round out this unimpressive collection.
Do see Doo 2, but only as a rental. I'm a lifelong Scooby fan and don't own either feature film release. Unless your little ones simply cannot get enough Doo in their entertainment diet, I would spend that money on expanding their artistic horizons in other ways.
This court finds for the defense. Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed is a giant step forward from the first film. However, my dismissal of the charges comes with special instructions. Warner Bros. is hereby remanded from adding another live action film to this franchise. Instead, they are to invest their capital into creating animated features with Pixar-quality production values and storylines, thus creating a Scooby-Doo for the 21st century. This court is now adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2005 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* Featurette: Triple Threat
* Featurette: Dancing Dog
* Featurette: True Ghoul Hollywood Stories
* Two Interactive Games
* Two Music Videos
* DVD-ROM Links
* Scooby-Doo 2 Official Site
* Scooby-Doo Official Site
* TV Tome: The Scooby-Doo Show
* The Blurb: Scooby-Doo 2 Special Effects