Scooby Doo

If Scooby Doo beggars serious intellectual discourse, please, be patient. We are, after all, discussing a sentient canine with limited vocalization abilities that accidentally solves mysteries by blundering through them. A quadripedal Gilligan, if you will. For some, this hearkens back to a long tradition of…

Oh, for crying out loud, it's a talking dog.

The Warner Brothers film opening today has sparked a lot of whining on the internet about how much it's going to suck, and betray everything Scooby Doo stands for. Get over it. No matter how fond our memories, the original t.v. show really isn't that great. It's just fun. And lucky for Director Raja Gosnell and writer James Gunn, both of whom have spent months in imminent danger of third-degree internet burns, the movie Scooby Doo is fun.

In its best moments, the movie brings the cartoon to life. Gunn and Gosnell open with the ending of a typical episode, in this instance The Case of the Luna Ghost. A spectral harlequin terrorizes a toy factory (owned by a surprise guest-star - this must be a New Scooby Doo Movie), and naturally, Mystery, Inc. has hatched a complicated Rube Goldberg plot to capture the ghost they know is not a ghost.

But in the attempt to make our heroes more three-dimensional, all is not well among the group. Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) has taken his good looks to heart, and become a self-absorbed twit who takes credit for all of Velma's (Linda Cardellini) plans. Forgetting that they never work anyway, Velma feels lost in the group. The bubble-headed Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) believes that she has more to contribute than keen fashion sense and a propensity for getting kidnapped.

At least Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby (Scott Innes) are pretty much themselves. When the gang breaks up under the pressure of their egos, the two keep custody of the fabled Mystery Machine and live the slacker life they always dreamed.

At this point, if accompanying a child, do not, do not attempt to explain the need for dramatic tension and character arcs. Tell the child that they just got mad and they'll get over it.

Two years after the break-up, everyone receives invitations to the new amusement park Spooky Island by its owner, the mysterious Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson). The island really is an isolated island, with its own airline. How Hanna-Barbera. (And how I wish it were real -- it looks pretty fun.)

Each member of Mystery Inc. thinks they alone were invited, proving that themselves the brains of the operation. (True to form, Shaggy and Scooby only go because they're promised an All You Can Eat buffet.)

And so the mystery begins. College kids on spring break go in wild and raucous, but leave Spooky Island calm and well-behaved, spouting nothing but an adult's interpretation of teen slang. It's a plot right out of way too many earnest issues of Teen Titans in the sixties.

Through their investigations, the gang encounters a lot of characters that look like they could have fit on the original cartoon, and there's clearly affection for the series. But the movie does take a left turn away from its roots in that the menace here really is supernatural. Shaggy stresses about it for a couple of minutes, but ends up facing this down with more bravery than he ever did against an obviously fake monster.

Still, Gunn has spun his tale cleverly enough. His script tailors the characters of Fred and Daphne just right for the already established personas of Prinze and Gellar, while staying in character for those who choose to act. Obviously, the show has been the butt of a lot of bad stand-up routines over the years, and Gunn addresses most of those jokes with enough subtlety that adults will laugh knowingly while kids laugh because the adults are laughing. Only the mystery villain may cut the line of post-irony too finely; adults will find it funny, but younger children, especially those still watching Cartoon Network re-runs religiously, will be a bit bothered by it. (I polled kids on this point after the screening.)

Gosnell handles it all with his usual workmanlike indistinction. When the film imitates the cartoon, it's charming. And the CG work on Scooby himself carries a lot of good will. But when the movie requires something from the direction itself, it's just not there. What should have been a thrilling climax ends up being curiously uninvolving, paced just a little too slowly and shot without any real flair.

The real energy of the movie comes from the brilliant work of Lillard and Cardellini. Both of these actors do more than just imitate the original voices; they bring Shaggy and Velma to life. Not only is Shaggy recognizably human, Lillard does the best job since Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? of acting against a character who isn't actually there for most of his scenes. It's not Oscar stuff, as this is, after all, Scooby Doo, but it does set the bar high for the next guy acting against CG. You'll believe a man loves a talking dog.

It's not Shakespeare, but it is one of the few movies I've seen this year that has not filled me with dread over the inevitable talk of a sequel. Here's to Scooby Doo, Too.

What's It Worth? $7

Derek McCaw

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