Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Scooby-Doo (2002)

Despite cheap animation typical of Hanna-Barbara and every script following the exact same formula, the original “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” would launch a franchise that has been running with few interruptions since 1969. Over the fifty years Mystery Inc. has been teaching kids to be skeptical of the supernatural, the series has spread across countless medias. There's been animated features, comic books, toys, video games, amusement park rides, and musical stage shows. The inevitable live action “Scooby-Doo” movie hit theaters in 2002. The film was directed by Raja Gosnell, an editor-turned-director whose credits read like a run-down of every gimmicky family-comedy of the early 2000s. The script, meanwhile, was provided by James Gunn, giving him his first mainstream hit.

Following an especially humiliating case, the celebrated team of Mystery Inc. – Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby-Doo – call it quits. The fivesome go their own ways for two years. That's until each member is separately invited to the same location, a haunting-themed vacation destination called Spooky Island. It seems something mysterious is going down on the island and its owner, Mr. Mondavarious, is hoping the gang can get to the bottom of it. The team immediately recognizes that something strange is going on. There's a doomsday-triggering relic, night-dwelling monsters, a soul-swapping device, and the return of an old enemy.

It might seem odd that James Gunn, still best known as a graduate of Troma Studios at the time, wrote a family-friendly adaptation of a long-running cartoon. Apparently, Gunn's original script was far edgier than the final product, largely aimed at adults who grew up on the cartoon. You can still see elements of this approach in the finished film. Shaggy's widely assumed love of marijuana is referenced in a shot of smoke pluming out of the top of the Mystery Machine, while “Pass the Dutchie” plays on the soundtrack. Later, Shaggy receives a love interest named Mary Jane. The widely loathed Scarppy-Doo, hated by long-time fans but loved by actual kids, is revealed as the final villain. Don Knotts and testicles are referenced. There's in-jokes about Fred's ascot, the gang splitting up, and Velma loosing her glasses. (The implication that Velma is a lesbian didn't make the final cut.) There's also simply absurd jokes that are unlikely to appeal to kids, like an instructional reel for brainwashing that features some overly verbose college students.

During filming, however, Gunn's script was toned way down. In many ways, “Scooby-Doo” is exactly the lame kiddie movie you'd expect it to be. There's plenty of juvenile gross-out humor that the little one will like. There's a long sequence devoted to Shaggy and Scooby-Doo belching and farting at each other, in addition to some urine and green, stinky gas. There's lots of sophomoric physical comedy, such as characters being tossed through windows or a dirt-bag race. At one point, Scobby is sneaked onto a plane by dressing up as an old lady. Later, he gets chased up a tree by another monster. Most regrettable is a scene where Daphne is doing ridiculous karate attacks on a masked wrestler. These kind of hi-jinks are in-keeping with the cartoon's humor but the movie executes them without much energy or grace.

By 2002, it was widely assumed that CGI effects had advanced to the point where you could convincingly create the titular character of a feature film using them. This, of course, was a mistake. The CGI Scooby-Doo is far from convincing. Though he at least looks close enough to his classic design that he's not super creepy either. Worst yet, the film doesn't stop with Scooby. The antagonists, large demonic entities with rabbit-like ears, are created with effects of similarly debatable quality.  This is not the only scene the film was made in 2002. There's frosted tips and exposed midriffs aplenty, as well as exceptionally bizarre cameos from Sugar Ray and Pamela Anderson.

Live-action adaptations of cartoons rarely work out well, simply because the stuff that makes animation appealing rarely translates well to flesh-and-blood. Still, I imagine seeing their beloved characters brought to life on-screen was a thrill for hardcore “Scoopy-Doo” fans. Some of the casting is spot-on. Matthew Lillard is eerily accurate as Shaggy, nailing the voice and the physicality. Linda Cardellini was also a pretty good pick for Velma, bringing a sardonic element to the much-maligned brainy girl. Sadly, this “Scooby-Doo” largely reduced the characters to their broadest versions. This causes Freddie Prince Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar to act on their worst tendencies as performers, both characters quickly becoming obnoxious.

If James Gunn had gotten his way, 2002's “Scooby-Doo” might've actually been something interesting. A raunchy spoof of the original cartoon aimed at stoners and adults probably could've been amusing. Not that the studio would have allowed an expensive adaptation of a still-popular kids' cartoon to get away with that. Nor should an edgy adaptation of a kids' show even necessarily exist. Obviously, Warner Brothers made the right financial decision, as “Scooby-Doo” grossed 275 million at the box office. The movie is pretty lame though, with a lot of belabored moments and few actual entertainment. [4/10]

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