Your name means Scooby Poop!
If you were a kid in the '60s and '70s, you waited for it like the annual visits from Santa Claus or the final bell of the last day of school. As the long summer evenings began to shorten, and the chill of fall snapped at the air, the television networks teased and tantalized, hinting at their Saturday morning possibilities. After countless days in anticipation, and a mandatory viewing of the Friday Prime Time Super Duper Cartoon Spectacular, your grade school brain was primed and set on "consume." And so it was that in 1969, an animated mainstay was permanently ingrained into the cerebellum of a nation of sugar cerealed celebrants; the Mystery Machine and its whodunit hunters scanned the haunted and the harrowing for clues and cons. Fast-forward three and a half decades, and Scooby-Doo is a cultural phenomenon, the kind of show that finds past and present fanatics intermingled, each engaged in scholastic debates and rampant revisionism. Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and the 'Doo are no longer seen as kiddy fair, but franchise players in the poke eat mon world of entertainment de juvenilia. And leave it to Warner Brothers to supply the masses with its necessary live action opiate, in the form of the 2002 release of the star (?) studded Scooby-Doo.
Facts of the Case
After helping Pamela Anderson (?) discover who is haunting a toy factory that creates environmentally friendly action figures of herself (NO, I did NOT make that last bit up…), the members of Mysteries, Inc. hit an ego oriented stalemate. Seems Velma is sick of not getting any…of the credit, Daphne is tired of being the damsel in distress, and everyone thinks Fred is a spotlight hogging meat-headed retard. After a spat they split, and a title card tells us two years pass by. Shaggy and Scooby are beach bumming when a plot device offers them a chance at solving a mystery on Spooky Island, the world's number one Wild on Wicca college celebration station Spring Break resort (no, I didn't make that up either…cut it out and pay attention).
Well, the promise of an All You Can Eat buffet (and the chance for each of them to solve the mystery and make a few bucks) brings the detecting duds back together. Seems that the salacious young hip adult debaucherous…amusement park is failing in its prime party directive. Professional students show up as vacant, hip-hop spouting dweebs and leave…vacant, hip-hop spouting dweebs? Apparently, evil, ungodly practices—like brainwashing, voodoo, and Sugar Ray—are being used to transform the future lawyers and insider traders of the nation into daiquiri-filled demon body bags. Emile Mondavarious, the hostile hostel owner, hopes the meddling kids can uncover the cabal before more frat fodder falls victim. But an unknown evildoer with a goofy gold pyramid puzzle has other ideas, not just for the matriculators, but the groovy gang as well.
Let's get a few preliminary facts out of the way right up front. This is not supposed to be rocket science or advanced chicken jerking. This is a cartoon world, and Scooby-Doo is a dog that solves mysteries. Okay? Are we all clear on that? He's not Hamlet, trying to uncover the deception of his father's murder via wordplay and the lack of an internal monologue. Nor is he some generic three-days-away-from-retirement police boob who gets saddled with a partner too insane or smart for clues to do anything but fall into their lap. The Doo is a dog. He likes to scratch fleas, chase squirrels, lick himself in inappropriate places, and occasionally figure out who is spooking up the old sawmill. Along with his animated pals Freddy, Velma, Daphne, and Shaggy, he is a fondly remembered icon from the days when kids ate their pure pre-sweetened snack foods, faces glued to irradiating cathode ray tubes filled with psychedelic goodness. The notion, 37 years after he first speech impedimented his way into the hearts and heebie jeebies of a generation of glass teat toddlers, that Scooby would still be a star was as inconceivable back then as his ongoing, multiple merchandising popularity is today.
Still, the notion of a live action version of Scooby-Doo didn't always ring of a gratuitous given. Unless your name was Walt, and you've built up years of goodwill that you're ready to whiz down your leg for a little more moolah, you shy away from shaggy DAs and barefoot executives. But not Warner Brothers. They have successfully milkboned the detecting Great Dane for all his VHS and DVD unit worth while skating around other warped wonders of illogic and borderline racism like The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Buford and the Galloping Ghost, or Goober and the Ghost Chasers. It would figure that after the less-than-stellar returns on kiddy crap like Ernest Gets a Leg Cramp or Batman Re-Reimagined, they would once again return to television, the Tennessee Williams of the potential cinematic stinker. So why not reconfigure the Doomeister and his band of teenage twerps into post Blue Fairy real live boys and girls and begin feeding the non-animated fuel into the blockbuster for Blockbusters mentality of the general public? What could go wrong?
Well, quite a bit, actually. In some ways, Scooby-Doo epitomizes everything that is so very misguided and malformed about big budget Summer Hollywood product. It's loud. It's brash, and it constantly lowers its common denominator for the sake of saccharine, safe storytelling. And then it overwhelms you with CGI silliness, just to motivate repeat business. You may be wondering, with all this negative foreshadowing cluttering up the criticism, if the movie gets anything right? Oddly enough, there are a few choice, wonderful items here. First, it doesn't dump on Scooby-Doo. The first Ritalin-ready hyperactive cartoon pooch is conceived and rendered with more wit, wonder, and acting skill than many of his co-stars. His expressions and body language are perfectly executed, and overall, he makes an endearing comic canine. But one can't help in questioning just how "live action" he is. After all, his image is a computer animated version of the hand drawn animated version with some more dog details. Isn't it a cheat to render Scooby-Doo as a technology enhanced series of sketches, be they Pentium or pen and ink? Still, as the lynch pin to either a successful or dreadful realization of the show's manic energy, this Scooby-Doo more than lives up to its paint cel cousin.
But the two best things in the film are human: one in front of the camera, and one behind the scenes: Matthew Lillard and Bill Boes. Matthew has the overwhelming task of trying to take the lethal animated combination of Maynard G. Crebbs with Casey Kasem's hippie valley histrionics and comport them into the new millennium. And he does so perfectly and effortlessly. Lillard is Shaggy. He so inhabits and enlivens the role that it becomes hard to recall his hand drawn alter ego. He is the living embodiment of the role. Just as Gary Cole "channeled" Robert Reed in The Brady Bunch Movie, Lillard crawls inside Shaggy's soul-patched poses and hop-headed hedonism and creates a three-dimensional, comic centerpiece. His is the best acting work in the film. Boes, on the other hand, is a behind the boards sonic scenic wizard whose production design skills transform the screen and the sets into eye startling, inner child cheering glee machines. Like the work of Bo Welch (Edward Scissorhands, The Birdcage) or Grant Major (The Frighteners, The Lord of the Rings), he recognizes that a proper fantasy world must inhabit the mindset of magic first, with the practical application of real world rigors a far distant second. His Spooky Island designs are inspired bits of Burton-esque lunacy, mixed with a delirious dose of 1950s lounge and retro funk. In combination with Lillard and the 'Doo, this movie has some very good foundational material going for it.
But that's about it. Most things it only gets half right. One of them is the script, written with all the forced faux humor of a submarine's screen door by James Gunn. Any chance to make a useless pop culture reference, or turn a character's standard MO into a lame as lard bit of non-humor, is hurled at the audience like undercooked linguini, hoping at least one or two limp strands stick. While the task of transforming a beloved two-dimensional bit of baby boomer business with no characterization and limited narratives may have been difficult, Gunn doesn't even try. He simply takes the standard Hollywood fantasy action movie formula and adds a talking dog and some computer generated demon rabbits. The character of Velma, played with a great deal of vigor, but little of the cartoon's cleverness, by Freaks and Geeks star Linda Cardellini, is also half-baked. It's not really all her fault. She too is the victim of a Jan Brady with a brain self-loathing story arc and is given nothing remotely interesting to do or say. And then there's Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne. She is just a slight cut above the colorform, and yet again the stale script turns her character from statuesque own-holder to whiny kung fu wench.
Worse than any hate crime, however, is the one thing that Scooby-Doo gets 100% wrong. And it consists of two and one half words: Freddie Prinze, Jr. Is there an actor more dead on screen? If he were alive in the 1890s, his illuminated visage would suck the paraffin out of a Victorian Magic Shadow Box's candle. It's truly sad when an animated bit of celluloid from 1969 has more personality, charisma, and raw sex appeal than our bleached bland himbo Fred. He is bad in this film. Dead clam bad. Musty old gym shorts bad. Rotten gums with oozing pus warts bad. Honestly, he is an anchor around the neck of the entire production. The minute his vacant, perplexed personage walks on camera, the movie grinds to a sickeningly dull thud and drowns under the weight of his heinousness. In many ways, he is symbolic of anything that is wrong in Scooby-Doo. He is too "of the moment," playing a role because somewhere, someone in Hollywood lost a bet with his now dead dad and swore they would make a leading man out of him. Seriously, he is a flabby flavor of the month, the kind of bad fad actor you know, instinctually, will not be in feature films, let alone student porn, five years from now. His casting, along with that of now-wife Buffy, reeks of agent packaging and concept marketing, pure and simple. While the film is indeed based on a cartoon, did they have to find an actor as flat as a sheet of artist's tablet and as painful as a paper cut as well?
This is why, ultimately, Scooby-Doo fails. It tries to be faithful to the cartoon from whence it spawned, and yet it also wants to be hip, cool, and happening, getting down and daffy in all of its winking at the camera jinkiness. Instead of battling fraud minded minions from the real world, our misguided movie has CGI Jackalopes running amuck and protoplasmic poppycock burbling about in an attempt to gloss over the weak script with hallucinogenic horse hockey. It manages to undermine the very premise of the show: that there is no such thing as the "supernatural" and that the free spirit and mind of youthful enthusiasm can see through the phony phantoms and bogus boogiemen to discover the truth behind the trailer park's problems. Fans of the original will go through a series of Kubler-Rossian mood swings trying to manage the grief that results from seeing their favored fright fighters reduced to a series of stupid set-pieces and half baked banter. They will try to deny its awkwardness, vent their anger at the miscasting, bargain for better treatment in the evitable sequels, and drown their depression in numerous peanut butter, hot fudge, and sardine sundaes. But eventually, they will find acceptance, knowing that, par for the course, most funny page films also stink of the imagination rot rife in most of Scooby-Doo.
Visually, a DVD like Scooby-Doo needs to rock the eye sockets to make up for its numerous missteps. Luckily, Warner Brothers doesn't fail. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is stunning. There is excellent color contrasts and rich, sharp blacks. Even with the plethora of extras included on the disc, this is one excellent, defect free transfer. For sound quality, we get a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that lives up to its title in speaker bouncing bounty. Ghosts and ghouls fly around your head and spatial distances are accurately recaptured. About the only bad news, aurally, is the bass heavy unhip hype music that rattles through the movie like a temple testing music product placement sampler. In the extras we get a fairly comprehensive production overview. There are deleted scenes, with or without commentary. Many of them should have stayed in the film, and the reasons why they are not (according to director Gosnell) are just plain stupid. There are several short behind-the-scenes featurettes that describe everything from the Mystery Machine's interior to the dilemmas of filming in Queensland, Australia. There are some moderately challenging DVD-ROM games, and a main menu arcade style trivia challenge that leads to additional backstage insights.
But the most telling additional digital bits are the documentary and the commentaries. While very much in the press junket mode of information distribution, the making-of feature gives us a chance to see the genius of Bill Boes in action, from initial abandoned sketches (which are truly the fodder for nightmares) to his attention to comic book detail. You will have to suffer through endless glad handing moments of the cast patting themselves on the résumé for being in the film, but the inside look at the weird, wonderful art and production design is worth the ego wading. Even more insightful are the two separate commentary tracks. One features director Raja Gosnell and the producers of the film. It is very comprehensive, providing insight into the numerous incarnations and permutations the film went through in order to become the bland, unchallenging piece of summer fluff that eventually was released. The impression one gets is that, as the testing process proceeded with no end in sight, more and more of the smart, challenging edges of the movie were shorn off to make it tamer and toddler friendly. The second track has stars Matthew Lillard, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini, and the human lox, Fred Prinze Jr. joking and deflating their performances and each other. They lament lost lines and missed opportunities, and apart from Lillard, who marvels at his own work, this feature highlights why Scooby-Doo is all glitter and no glory. The actors point out how, time and time again, the mandates of the blockbuster undermined the desire to pay loving tribute to a beloved set of cartoon icons.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Look, this is Scooby-Doo we are talking about here, not Roger Rabbit or even George of the Jungle, so cut the dog dude and the movie some slack. Anyone over the age of ten who is sitting in his or her home perturbed that the filmmakers did not treat the members of Mysteries Inc. properly or were unfaithful to the source material should perhaps be warned that, when their incisors finally drop out of their head after one too many Smirnoff Ices, the tooth fairy won't be making a house call to slip them a fin. For the now generation, who wouldn't know the original Scooby from his Sinatra scat sung origins, this is a perfectly serviceable bit of Hollywood hokum, better than other televisual turds like The Flintstones or The Beverly Hillbillies. And you don't have to see Rosie O'Donnell in a blue leopard print girdle. Sure, Freddie Prinze Jr. couldn't act his way out of a grade school production of The Bremantown Musicians, but Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, and Mr. Bean are way cool, and the sets look like Hanna-Barbera blueprints for the inevitable theme park attraction. If one suspends their disbelief, say, half the distance to the sun, and simply allows the eye bonbons to work them into a delirious diabetic comic coma, you'll find Scooby-Doo a very entertaining film.
There is one truly magical scene in Scooby-Doo, a moment where everything the movie could have been, even with human stain Prinze Jr. and our buff slayer, unfolds on the silver screen. The Mystery Machine is traveling down a beautiful lonesome road as a near perfect sunset chases it across the horizon. The beautiful opening bars of Brian Wilson's tender lullaby "God Only Knows" lilts across the soundtrack like steps back into time and innocence. We cut to the interior of the pop art caravan and see the cast, looking Saturday Morning Cartoon perfect in the expressions and costumes, capturing the very essence of what made the television show so unique, and fondly remember. As Velma's voice-over narration explains how perfect everything was, we mentally begin to agree. And then Scrappy Doo, that annoying little ball of shark jumping jive, explodes onto the dashboard and proceeds to literally piss everything good and graceful and endearing all over Daphne's purple jumper. And that's the main problem with Scooby-Doo. It believes that fart jokes and motherboard monsters can make up for a lack of heart and a dearth of humanity. But no matter how hard it tries, puppy urine and prolonged flatulence cannot resurrect the spirits of 1969 lost in the self-proclaimed cleverness of this awkward movie. As Homer Simpson once said, "Scooby-Doo can doo-doo, but Jimmy Carter is smarter." Exactly, Homer my man. Exactly.
The Court is split on this film. While it was entertained, it was also disturbed. Scooby-Doo is placed on 15 years probation, hoping by then technology will be able to find a cure for what ails it. Matthew Lillard and Bill Boes are acquitted of all charges and free to go. Freddie Prinze Jr. is sentenced to torture…TORTURE…TORTURE!!!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track Featuring Director Raja Gosnell and the Producers
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