Scooby-Doo (2002)

D: Raja Gosnell
S: Matthew Lillard, Sarah Michelle Gellar

Unexpectedly enjoyable live action version of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon which successfully captures its tone, visual style, and sense of humour. The film begins with Mystery Inc. at the climax of another investigation into ghostly goings-on. In the film's closest re-hash of the dynamics of the cartoon, the case is closed through a combination of panic and planning as they unmask the dastardly villain posing as a ghost. However, a press conference immediately afterwards at which Fred (Freddie Prinze Jnr.) takes credit for the group's success is the trigger for an argument which ends with the group splitting up and going their separate ways. Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is tired of being captured by 'ghosts' and ending up the damsel in distress to be rescued by the others. Velma (Linda Cardellini) has had enough of being the brains behind the outfit while Fred hogs the spotlight. Fred can not understand their objections, but opts not to be the one who stays, so he quits too. Only Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby-Doo (voiced by Scott Innes) want to stick together, but are left alone with the Mystery Machine as the others depart. We pick up the story some years later with Shag and Scoob still in the van getting 'toasted' on a Californian beach. They are invited to solve a mystery on Spooky Island, a place to which Shaggy explains they have no intention of going to (or any place with the words "scary", "creepy", or "monster" in it). Still, with the lure of free food, the duo head for the airport. Lo and behold, there they meet all of the other members of Mystery Inc., all of whom have been individually invited to solve the same mystery by theme park owner Rowan Atkinson (Rat Race). The gang go to the island and, separately at first, then later together, solve the mystery in their usual fashion, the resolution of which I wouldn't dream of telling you here...

Scooby-Doo is a lot of fun. Its bright colour scheme, quick pace, and playful performances make it extremely easy to watch for both kids and adults. It is hard to imagine anyone watching the feature who has not seen the cartoon at some point, and apart from those who only came along during the lamentable Scrappy-Doo years, it is hard to imagine anyone who has seen the cartoon not having some kind of soft spot for it. The film is a largely accurate adaptation of the original, although the inclusion of actual supernatural elements (as opposed to "sickos in Halloween costumes") has been more a feature of the made for TV animated features of the past few years. This aside, elements of sly self-parody and adult in-jokes are unobtrusive, and actually enhance the viewing experience for those for whom they matter. Like The Flintstones, the film achieves a visual tone which cannily replicates the look and feel of the cartoon in spite of the move to three dimensions. Production designer Bill Boes' colour scheme is more vivid than that of the sometimes muddy series and the sets are more elaborate, but these enhancements contribute to a Tim Burtonesque feel which contributes to the atmosphere rather than acts as a distraction.

Director Raja Gosnell (Never Been Kissed) seems aware of the challenge of adapting the source and has responded well. This is, without a doubt, the most successful cartoon adaptation yet filmed, and you can take that plaudit however you like. The script, by Troma writer James Gunn (working with Craig Titley), is straightforward and unpretentious, speedily establishing character and 'theme', then getting straight into the action. The character dynamics and the premise (of their not wanting to work together) pays off as part of the plot and for once there is no sappy attempt to weave screenwriting 101 through the action. The film simply gets on with the job and tells a fun story without labouring over the details or trying to beef up the characters with lots of unnecessary sentimentality and artificial emotion. Gosnell takes this narrative economy and runs with it to the next level, keeping the movie at a consistent pace which gives time for comic interludes such as Shaggy and Scooby's belching contest (faint echoes of Blazing Saddles?) and Daphne's encounter with Voodoo Man Miguel A. Núñez Jr. which are also the stuff of the cartoon. There is a genuine cartoonish energy to the film, and yet it never becomes completely flippant about the needs of its audience. The ending (or should I say the climax) is a particularly neat touch which shows just how closely attuned to the fan base the makers really are, but the less said about that scene the better unless you have seen the movie.

The film is buoyed considerably by its actors, all of whom appear to have done their homework. Prinze makes a suitably stiff Fred, and with the added quirk of being a dimwit, the actor has enough to work with to keep the character interesting. Cardellini is a terrific Velma, playing the requisite mixture of shyness and self-confidence to hold her steady. Gellar does something of a variant on her early first season Buffy the Vampire Slayer persona and the camera does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time gazing at her, but the actor is up to it and keeps the energy level high. The star turn comes from Matthew Lillard in the difficult role of Shaggy. It is the most difficult because it is the one most likely to be scrutinised by fans. While the other parts are more of a challenge because the characters are less clearly defined, Shaggy, with his distinctive voice, posture, and capacity to shift emotions quickly and completely was always the most entertaining and therefore carries the weight of the picture. Lillard does a great job with him, especially with the voice (apparently the actor had coaching from Casey Kasem), and he also interacts believably with the computer-generated Scooby-Doo. Without this performance, the film would have failed. With it working as well as it does, the movie is a joyful experience for big kids and small alike.

It should be noted that in spite of all the fun it offers, the film does serve up a couple of computer-generated monsters which will prove pretty scary for very small fry. The scene where the creatures invade the theme park's night club is very well done and has plenty of goofy gags thrown in, but it remains generically true to its horror film roots; so much so that small children may find it disturbing. On the balance of things, the fact that the film has the courage to go in this direction is yet another point in its favour, but it is worth bearing in mind that these scenes are there if you are planning to take anyone under five.

I have to admit to having had low expectations of Scooby-Doo which may have coloured my reaction to it, but the final product is successful on the level at which it is pitched even by objective standards. For those for whom the attempt to make a live action cartoon is a monstrous and/or unnecessary ambition, the film will most likely be a matter of extreme indifference. For anyone else, it is likely to prove to be enjoyable and entertaining. In the summer of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, there are certainly, obviously, plainly worse films out there, and though it is unlikely to win many awards, Scooby-Doo has the virtue of rewarding rather than punishing its audience for watching it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.