Judge Dan Mancini could, like, go for a sandwich.
The greatest mystery is how it all began.
With a resume that includes Beethoven, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, and Snow Dogs, producer-director Brian Levant has built his career on by-the-numbers, family-friendly comedies about dogs and television cartoon characters. It's difficult to imagine a project sitting more squarely in his wheelhouse than a straight-to-DVD prequel to the live-action mystery adventures Scooby-Doo and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. In Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins, Levant gets to wallow in formulaic storytelling while indulging his love of Hanna-Barbera cartoons and canines (albeit a computer-generated one in this case). The movie tells the story of how everyone's favorite gang of meddling teens met and became Mystery, Inc. We witness how Scooby-Doo came into Shaggy's possession, the creation of Scooby snacks, and the maiden voyage of the Mystery Machine—and, of course, it's all wrapped in a silly and predictable ghost story.
Norville "Shaggy" Rogers (newcomer Nick Palatas) is a friendless misfit at Coolsville High until he adopts an energetic CGI Great Dane named Scoobert Doo (Frank Welker, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!). A mishap on a school bus lands him in detention with football star Fred Jones (Robbie Amell, Left for Dead), science nerd Velma Dinkley (Hayley Kiyoko, Blades of Glory), and the richest, prettiest girl in school, Daphne Blake (Kate Melton, Friday Night Lights). When a pair of angry ghosts takes up residence in the school, Shaggy, Scooby, and their new friends rise to the occasion, becoming an unlikely team of mystery-solving teens.
Much of Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins feels like it was cobbled together from pieces of much better movies. The opening scene is an almost beat-for-beat remake (or rip-off, depending on how you look at it) of Peter Parker's unfortunate bus ride to school in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. Levant and company then segue directly into an act of grand theft Aykroyd as Shaggy, Fred, Velma, and Daphne encounter the ill-tempered ghost of a crotchety old woman in the Coolsville High library, the gang fleeing in terror as books fly off shelves a la Ghostbusters' memorable first act. From there, the movie is a non-stop collection of clichés, silly jokes, and not-so-clever riffs on various fixtures in American pop culture. We get the gang in disguise and walking in slow motion to Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" (because that hasn't been run into the ground in the years since Kill Bill first hit theaters), a blatant nod to the whole "For Frodo!" thing from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and a musical montage of Shaggy and Scooby falling in love that is stolen directly from every chick flick ever made. If all that's not enough for you, there's even an obnoxious fart joke because we all know how Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was all about flatulence-based comedy. On the plus side, Levant is far better at dropping pop culture references and mild gross-out humor than Jason Friedberg and Adam Seltzer (Epic Movie)—Levant's jokes may not be funny, but at least they're jokes.
The fact that the movie is formulaic tripe isn't entirely problematic considering that, let's face it, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was formulaic tripe. In fact, fart jokes aside, Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins is far more faithful to the original cartoons than either of the previous live-action adaptations by virtue of its being aimed squarely at young children instead of jaded thirtysomethings hungry for a steady diet of irony and nostalgia. The flick may be corny, but it's blessedly free of double entendres and jokes about Freddie groping Daphne. It would be a decent, innocuous, albeit forgettable kids' flick except that Palatas is a weak replacement for Matthew Lillard, whose performance as Shaggy was the one bright spot in the dismal Scooby-Doo and Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed. Palatas never looks comfortable in the role, and is particularly awkward and unconvincing throughout the movie's first act. He's not helped by the fact that Scooby-Doo is little more than a mediocre special effect, given minimal screen time and almost nothing to do. The friendship between Shaggy and Scooby is the comedic lifeblood of any Mystery, Inc. adventure. In Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins, that friendship is given little more than token acknowledgement.
The movie arrives on DVD in a 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer with attractive colors and impressive detail. The image is clean and free of digital artifacts of any kind. Audio is presented in a Dolby 5.1 mix that delivers impressive spatial design, excellent clarity, and even a bit of LFE during the scares and action sequences.
In addition to the feature, the disc contains a brief featurette called "Coolsville High Yearbook" that provides background on the movie's characters; a personality quiz that tells kids which of the Mystery, Inc. gang they most resemble; a six-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a gag reel; and a music video by pop band Anarbor.
If you're hoping that Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins is an opportunity to relive your childhood for 82 minutes, you're sure to be disappointed. If you are a child, then it was made just for you.
Guilty as charged…unless you're a little kid.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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