Director: Raja Gosnell
Screenplay: Craig Titley and James Gunn (based on characters created by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera)
Stars: Freddie Prinze Jr. (Fred Jones), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Daphne Blake), Matthew Lillard (Norville 'Shaggy' Rogers), Linda Cardellini (Velma Dinkley), Scott Innes (voice of Scooby Doo), Rowan Atkinson (Mondavarious), Isla Fisher (Mary Jane)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2002
Country: USA

College is a time for learning. Of course, some of the most interesting learning that takes place during your college days has little to do with what you get out of the economics classroom or the physics lab, but rather the tidbits of info that are passed on while hanging around in the dorm.

"Did you know that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is an almost perfectly timed alternate soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz?"

"Hey, if you listen really closely here, the main character in Disney's Aladdin says, 'Good teenagers, take off your clothes.'"

And, of course, one of my favorites, the "theory" that the original Scooby-Doo cartoons, which began airing in 1969, were not about a bunch of crime-solving high-school kids and their talking Great Dane, but rather were all about drugs. After all, has there ever been a more stoned slacker-hippie than Shaggy, what with his slumped demeanor and constant cravings for the munchies? And what else can you make of a bunch of teenagers who are constantly seeing strange sights (including the strangest of all, the aforementioned talking Great Dane ...).

Those hoping for clever in-jokes about this long-rumored interpretation of an otherwise benign--although undoubtedly strange--kids' show in the new live-action Scooby-Doo are in for a big disappointment, as are those who were hoping to find out if Velma is really a lesbian. While the original title of the cartoon series was Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, the title of the new movie might best be Sly In-Jokes Aimed at a Grown-Up Generation-X Audience, Where Are You?.

Apparently, there were several jokey references to drugs in the original script by Craig Titley and James Gunn, not to mention a kiss between Daphne and Velma, but they were eventually dropped in the good name of family entertainment. After all, most of the kids who grew up on Scooby cartoons now have little ones of their own (of course, this doesn't mean that there can't be a gratuitous combination burping-farting contest at one point--what would a summer comedy for kids be without flatulence jokes?). The best the movie has to offer is a quick shot of smoke billowing out of the Mystery Machine while Musical Youth's remake of the reggae classic "Pass the Dutchie" plays on the soundtrack, with the joke being that Shaggy and Scooby are just grilling eggplant burgers.

For the most part, Scooby-Doo sticks with the tried-and-true formula that has worked for countless animated TV episodes. Thus, Daphne will be captured at least once, Velma will lose her glasses at some point, Scooby and Shaggy will eat lots of food that would make most people sick (chocolate syrup on your hamburger, anyone?), and Freddy will take all the credit for everything. The only trick here is that all these characters are now played by flesh-and-blood actors, all except Scooby, of course, who has been given a surprisingly effective three-dimensional computer-animated make-over that maintains his animated appearance, but also adds an almost surreal touch of photorealism.

Long rumored to be in the works, at one point with Mike Myers attached, Scooby-Doo is primarily a novelty movie, a one-trick visual gag that fans of the original show will find amusing and people unfamiliar with the material will find repellent. Obviously, Titley and Gunn were working from the assumption that those seeing the movie would be familiar with the Scooby formula. Thus the opening sequence, which finds the gang foiling yet another dastardly scheme by a gruff villain in a ridiculously elaborate ghost costume ("And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!") is twisted only in that the group breaks up at the end of it, rock-band style, because of clashing personalities.

Time passes, and the group is reunited when Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson), the proprietor of Spooky Island, an enormous theme-park getaway for college students, recruits them to solve the mystery of why his guests are being zombified. Suffice it to say that the mystery itself is ludicrous, involving giant monsters that take over people's bodies and put their protoplasm (or something) in a giant vat where the lead villain can then suck up the combined power and end the world (or something). Whatever happened to the good ol' days of someone just trying to scare away tourists because he wanted to cash in on some undervalued real estate?

What fun the movie has to offer is in the casting, which is hit-and-miss. Scoring a direct hit is Matthew Lillard (Thirteen Ghosts), who not only channels Casey Kasem's Shaggy voice perfectly, but damn near creates a poignant character, whose best-buddy-in-the-whole-wide-world relationship with Scooby (voiced by Scott Innes) is genuinely touching. Likewise, Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) creates an excellent vocal and visual reproduction of the brainy Velma, although her sexuality is still left in question (at one point she does mention that she has been on "a journey of personal discovery," whatever that means). Sarah Michelle Gellar is adequate as Daphne, although her character's martial-arts ability feels a little too much like forced synergy with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unfortunately bringing up the rear is Freddie Prinze Jr. (Summer Catch), who is woefully miscast as Freddy, the straight-laced, ascot-wearing leader of the gang. Prinze Jr. not only looks nothing like his square-jawed cartoon counterpart, but his character has been completely rewritten into a self-absorbed male bimbo. It's not that I'm against changing the original formula, but only in ways that work. Freddy doesn't work.

As a whole, Scooby-Doo works best when it plays the characters and the humor straight, as they were in the cartoon, which is unfortunate because it deprives it of the opportunity to generate real laughs by juxtaposing the late '60s aura of the TV show with the turn of the new millennium. As it turns out, the most strained jokes and unfunniest moments are when the movie tries to be hip in a postmodern, self-conscious kind of way. This is particularly true of Freddy's narcissism, which was certainly implied in the original show, but was never taken to the extreme it is here (he is now on the lecture circuit and has written a book, Fred on Fred). Director Raja Gosnell (Big Momma's House) keeps the proceedings light for the most part, although he and his actors are constantly being overwhelmed by the gargantuan production design by Bill Boes (who has worked as an assistant art director for Tim Burton and Henry Selick, hence his tendency toward overkill).

When it comes right down to it, you're probably better off watching the cartoons, but the live-action Scooby-Doo is still a mildly amusing diversion. And, even though it doesn't answer the question of whether or not Scooby and Shaggy were hittin' the wacky weed, it will score points for anyone who detested the introduction of Scrappy-Doo (see the movie and you'll see what I mean).

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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