One has to wonder what drew such high-wattage Hollywood youngsters to the live-action version of beloved Hanna-Barbera cartoon Scooby Doo. Surely the idea pitched well, and considering the recent spate of cartoons, comics, and kids’ books turned into blockbuster films, the time must have seemed right. But what starts as a good idea doesn’t always end up as a good script. I don’t think the major shortcomings of Scooby Doo are director Raja Gosnell’s fault, as her previous films, like Big Momma’s House and Never Been Kissed, have been solid. The main problem here is the script, or the lack thereof.
The bare bones of the story are fine, if not all that imaginative. The time is now, and as the film opens, our superstar sleuthing team is wrapping up “The Case of the Luna Ghost” at the Wow-O Toy Factory. After catching the villain (who asserts he would have gotten away with it, “if not for you meddling kids”) and basking in media glory (led by tv reporter Pamela Anderson), we find that the gang is not as happy together as their public image suggests. They air their personal gripes, and after some mildly heated argument, Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Velma (Linda Cardellini) decide to call it quits, much to the surprise and dismay of Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby Doo (voiced by Scott Innes).
Of course, we know this isn’t really the end, and all that’s left to do is reunite the gang and assert the standard kid-flick message regarding the power of friendship. Toward this end, creepy entrepreneur Mr. Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson) lures the teen detectives to the Spooky Island amusement park, where they must work together to solve a mystery. The film then proceeds by way of a repetitious cycle, in which Velma gripes about being under-appreciated, Daphne whines about always being the damsel in distress, and Fred reassures himself that he’s the best looking guy around. Shaggy and Scooby don’t complain about anything; as always they’re the happy-go-lucky duo incessantly in search of food to satisfy their munchies. These scenes are followed by action scenes, then by music montages (with a prominent performance by Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath), more gripe sessions, and so on.
The mystery of Spooky Island gets very little development in amongst all these events, CGI effects, and pop music marketing. Ostensibly, the Scooby gang must find out why the many teens and spring-breakers who visit the Island are leaving seemingly zombified. Early on, Fred and Velma discover what appears to be a brainwashing laboratory that turns kids into ideal citizens, resembling 1950s-era clean-teens. One sign of their re-education is that they speak in some weird satire of black street argot. Huh? We later find out the kids are being used as hosts for some monsters that can’t survive sunlight in their own bodies. So what’s up with the brainwashing and remaking them into “nice” kids? And why the implantation of the odd hip-hoppy slang? Well, the details are barely alluded to again after Fred and Velma’s discovery, much less explained in any coherent manner. As I said, the script is a mess.
The one thing that is rather enjoyable about Scooby Doo is that it does try to acknowledge adults in its audience, presuming they watched the cartoon as kids and will get the subtle skewering that goes on. Those of us who grew up on Scooby and continued to watch it in our college days have always known that Scooby and Shaggy are total stoners, hence their munchies. Scooby Doo gives us this joke, and at one point we come upon the Mystery Machine in a surf-side parking lot with billows of smoke coming out of the windows. As we approach, we hear Shaggy proclaim, “Talk about toasted!” The gag is explained for the kids as the two buddies using a portable grill inside the van, to toast the rolls for their eggplant burgers.
My favorite bit comes in a flashback that explains how all of the gang’s dissatisfactions have arisen. It seems their harmony is upset by the addition of Scrappy Doo to the crime-fighting team. We see Scrappy riding along with the rest of the team in the Mystery Machine, behaving in his usual bossy and intolerable manner, making outrageous demands and even daring to piddle on Daphne. Scrappy Doo is Scooby’s young nephew, as will be recalled by those of us who watched the cartoon, and an attempt way back when to revitalize the series and attract a new generation of viewers (a strategy that is pretty standard for child-oriented programming). But Scrappy also changed the show’s dynamic, alienating many viewers, including myself. It’s nice to have the bratty pup get his comeuppance here.
These self-conscious winks and nods to an older generation of Scooby fans, however, come few and far between and hardly make up for the mess that surrounds them. Yet, despite all its shortcomings, Scooby Doo will undoubtedly be a hit with children. The Shaggy and Scooby relationship, which has always been the real appeal of the cartoon, is quite true to its origins. And there is little that might be objectionable to parents—the violence isn’t all that graphic, and there is very little swearing or sexual innuendo (pre-release rumors of Velma shyly coming out seem to have been only that). The real disappointment is that, unlike other recent kids’ films and despite the few attempts at adult-aimed satire outlined above, the film offers so little for that parent/adult audience.