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Scooby-Doo   C-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Raja Gosnell
Writers: Craig Titley, James Gunn (based on characters created by Hanna-Barbera Productions)
Cast: Matthew Lillard, Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini, Rowan Atkinson, Isla Fisher, Scott Innes.

Review by Rob Vaux

A pair of questions to ponder: what exactly does Scooby-Doo set out to achieve, and can it be deemed a success if it meets that goal? The answer to the first is obvious -- to deliver a live-action version of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, featuring a cowardly Great Dane and his mystery-solving sidekicks, and presumably rake in the bucks while they're at it. The rub comes with the second question. As a homage, it hits all the same notes and recreates the original spirit of its predecessor... but by the time the final credits roll, we get the sinking feeling that that might not be a good thing.

Anyone familiar with the cartoon will recognize the characters here instantly: dapper nitwit Fred (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), temptress-in-distress Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), closet genius Velma (Linda Cardellini) and hippie-with-the-munchies Shaggy (Matthew Lillard). Scooby himself is rendered in CGI, the only possible way to approach a dog with as many human qualities as he. Unfortunately, the effects never quite gel with the rest of the movie, seeming far too out of place, even in the cartoonish world that director Raja Gosnell has created. The images move like Scooby, sound like Scooby, and act like Scooby, but amid the real-life actors, something feels wrong about them. As a result, we have a very hard time accepting and believing in the character... and that's only one of the film's problems.

The old shows unfolded with the regularity of Kabuki theater: the mysterious hauntings which draw the gang in, the baffling clues which only they seem to understand, the inevitable split-up (in which Shaggy and Scooby are invariably menaced by the boogeyman du jour), and the final unmasking in which the "ghost" turns out to be some bitter old peripheral figure trying to cash in on a scam. It was never high art, but dewy-eyed tots of a certain age found the regularity comforting. Slipshod, silly, and occasionally idiotic, it still was ours and we loved it for what it was. Gosnell seems capable of invoking that formula well enough, and those looking for a rehash of halcyon days won't be too disappointed. Going their separate ways after an ugly spat, the gang finds themselves reunited thanks to a mysterious benefactor (Rowan Atkinson, slumming badly), who wants them to investigate his haunted amusement park. Before you can say "zoinks!" they're up to their eyeballs in rampaging demons, brainwashed teenagers, and evil cultists with bad hair. Everything old becomes new again, and Scooby-Doo is resolute in sticking to its progenitor's well-worn path.

The trouble is that the cartoon had an immensely undemanding audience. A feature-length movie with the same material can't help but reveal its rather glaring cracks -- cracks which the fog of nostalgia had rendered less unseemly. Now, we can feel how tired the formula is, how routine and unimaginative the shticks become. Scooby-Doo feels cursed with a plodding lack of energy, using garish effects and questionable humor to cover up for the material's inherent lack of substance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the protagonists. Prinze and Cardellini struggle to make a strong impression, while Gellar seems content to rehash Buffy the Vampire Slayer in newer purple threads. Lillard steps up a bit further, invoking Shaggy's buggy eyes and cowardly shrieks well enough to bring an occasional smile to the face. His efforts aren't enough, though. They all try hard, but there's simply nothing for them to work with. These are stick-figure caricatures, given weight only by our rose-colored memories. No amount of thespian technique could make them interesting, or help them pull off a 90-minute feature.

With all that factored against it, the only hope is to fall back on post-modern riffing, and here at least, Scooby-Doo shows signs of life. It makes quiet attempts to update some of the show's quirks and foibles, showing bits of the raging neuroses that we always knew lurked beneath these characters' facades. Daphne gets tired of being caught by the bad guy and takes kung-fu lessons; Fred develops an immense ego by constantly foiling so many evil plots; Shaggy... well, Shaggy's heavily medicated; and so on. Unfortunately, it lacks the courage to really go for the throat with these notions. Instead of developing them into something truly potent, it backs off, relying on timid pokes when it should be making vicious jabs. Scooby-Doo's ultimate bad guy falls victim to similar attitude. Credit the film for understanding who the true force of evil is in Scooby's universe (I will refrain from revealing him here), but rather than send him up as it so clearly wants to do, it waters the idea down until the satire all but vanishes. Rumor has it that the material was edited out to make the film more kid-friendly. If so, shame on the studio. Such gutlessness betrays the instincts clearly on display, instincts that might have made for a much better movie.

To its credit, Scooby-Doo never promises anything it can't deliver. Nobody's walking into this thing expecting Anna Karenina, and the filmmakers clearly respect the material on which it is based. But paying homage to a flawed original can do more harm than good. Scooby-Doo wants us to remember how much fun we had as kids. Instead, it only reminds us how woefully inadequate some of our icons were. Sometimes, fond memories should stay in the past: a lesson this film teaches all too well.

Review published 06.17.2002.

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