A magician never reveals his secrets. Good thing Chief Justice Michael Stailey is not a magician.
It's a kinda magic!
A collaboration between Warner Bros. animation veterans Paul Dini (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) and Alan Burnett (Batman: The Animated Series), and Gen-Y femme fatale illusionist Misty Lee, thrusts the Mystery Inc. gang into the dark and dangerous world of magic. But can they tell the difference between what's real and what's illusion?
Some of the most memorable episodes from the original series, Scooby-Doo, Where are You!, centered on the gang visiting extended family members—Scooby-Dum ("The Headless Horseman of Halloween"), Uncle Shagworthy ("Scared alot in Camelot"), Colonel Beaureguard Sanders ("A Night of Fright is No Delight")—and here we get to meet Velma's little sister Madelyn (voiced by Danica Mckellar, The Wonder Years), a student at Merlin Whirlen's Academy of Stage Magic. The school is based out of creepy O'Flannery Manor, an Irish castle brought over to the States brick by brick and reassembled by Lord Seamus O'Flannery, a master of dark magic. Owned and operated by slick magician Merlin Whirlen (James Patrick Stuart), with support from his beautiful assistant Crystal (Crystal Scales), nerdy stage hand Marlon (Brian Posehn, Just Shoot Me), bitter housekeeper Alma (Diane Delano), and a wide variety of animal performers, the school is struggling to stay afloat amidst ghostly attacks from Lord O'Flannery's pet Gryphon, the mythological protector of O'Flannery Manor. How convenient then that ice cream cone magnet Calvin Curdles (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development) wants to purchase the castle for use as his worldwide headquarters. When Merlin refuses to sell, Madelyn calls in her sister and the gang to unravel the mystery behind the attacks and save the school.
Being the Scooby junkie I am, I had high hopes for Abracadabra-Doo, especially considering the talent behind it. A little Indiana Jones, a little Harry Potter, and a dash of Irish folklore by all rights should seemingly add up to small screen fun. Hip, self-referential, and loaded with in-jokes, the story is built upon the classic Scooby formula—mysterious ghost/monster terrorizes people, multiple suspects with motive, friend/family kidnapped or put in danger, clues point the gang towards the real culprit, and a big reveal proves there was no ghost/monster at all—complete with original costumes including an ascot-wearing Fred ("It's a scarf!") and a vintage Mystery Machine (updated with an obnoxious, sentient SatNav voiced by Dave Attell). All good, right?
One of the more interesting facets here is that each of the characters get a turn in the subplot spotlight, something we don't often see with this franchise—Velma confronts sibling rivalry, Madelyn's one-time crush on Shaggy is re-ignited, Fred is smitten with Whirlen's assistant Crystal, and Daphne's jealousy sets her to work on purging those danger-prone tendencies. They're also changing things up on the vocal front with Scooby-Doo's live-action Shaggy, Matthew Lillard, inheriting the mantle from the semi-retired Casey Kasem. Granted, it's not a seamless transition, but with time Matthew could own the role. And besides, playing alongside Frank Welker, who carries on splendidly for the late Don Messick as the voice of Scoob, Matthew has every opportunity to succeed.
All that being said, they didn't sell me on it. While Warner Bros. has removed the requisite travelogue/edutainment elements of previous outings, Abracadabra-Doo doesn't take advantage of its own freedoms. The Monkee's inspired title track is woefully out of place, completely undermining the awesome stylized credit sequence behind it. The plot takes the kernel of an idea we've seen far too many times before and does very little with it, padding out the run time with wasted opportunities and bad guys who aren't really bad, just misunderstood. Adding insult to injury, even though this a good looking adventure—the integration of traditional hand drawn and CG animation continues to improve—the whole experience comes across as very vanilla. Just add it to the heap of the gang's 14 other forgettable direct-to-DVD adventures. I'm leaving out Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, the first and only original outing to live up to the series' original run.
Presented in full frame format, most likely for heavy rotation on Boomerang and Cartoon Network, the image is perfectly acceptable television animation. Clean lines, bright colors, and nice lighting, but soft backgrounds, smooshy character design and movement cheapen the image. The audio is also on par with modern television presentations: clean dialogue, minimal environmental effects, stock Hanna-Barbera sound cues, and a blase underscore from composer Robert J. Kral.
If you're hoping for bonus material, forget it. There's only one featurette that's barely tangential to the plot…
Scooby-Doo and Puppets Too! (11 min)—Puppeteer Michael Moodoo teaches kids about the artistry of creating and performing with puppets.
If Dini and Burnett stick with the franchise for its annual DVD release, there may be hope for future installments. In fact, take the style used in the opening sequence and craft an entire series around it. Then you'd have something! Until then, the court offers probation.
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