On the 13th of September 1969, a new children’s show about mystery-solving youths and their dog premiered on CBS. Created by Joseph Barbera and William Hana, Scooby Doo, Where Are You! ran for a mere 41 episodes, but would be the launching pad for an entire phantasmic franchise spanning 14 TV shows and 39 films. The majority of this media would be, and continues to be, animated, but one motion picture in 2002 dared to challenge that, leading to what has now been dubbed the live-action Scooby Doo movie.
We follow Mystery Incorporated as they reunite after 2 years apart to solve a case of unusual behaviour on the aptly named Spooky Island. However they get more than they bargained for when the monsters, for once, end up being the genuine article, and they must now prevent the ‘darkpocolypse’. Scooby Doo opens with the team in the middle of a caper, yet to disband, foiling the destruction of the Wow-O Toy factory by The Luna Ghost. It plays out like you would expect it to, with Velma concocting a plan, Daphne getting kidnapped, Fred taking charge and Scooby and Shaggy accidentally capturing the villain. It demonstrates a real understanding of the source material and gets us up to speed on the cartoonish reality of this universe, but the real story comes after the villain’s downfall, where the credits would usually roll. Velma, Daphne and Fred, in that order, decide that they’ve had enough of playing the same roles time and time again, leading them to go their separate ways and leaving the Mystery Machine with Shaggy and Scooby. It provides a solid emotional through-line to the story and results in a satisfying payoff though of course, it works better if you, like me, are already a fan of the franchise. When we catch up with everyone, two years have passed and they have all been individually invited to the Amusement Park getaway on Spooky Island. Fred has succumbed to his self-absorption, Velma has been on a journey of self discovery and Daphne has earned her black belt in karate, while Shaggy and Scooby have simply continued to live their best lives. With a story so centred on change, the friendship between Norville Rogers and Soobert Doobert Doo remains our one constant.
The plot is a lot of fun and that is certainly helped by the casting of Rowan Atkinson, of Mr Bean fame, as the island’s owner which sees him bring his unique sense of aloof-ness to a not-so-aloof film. Scooby Doo feels almost sinister in many places, but the talent of the cast and the slightly exaggerated decor of the island help it to maintain a camp edge. This universe has a certain amount of cartoon physics, with fall damage not being a real issue, but the gravity and weight of items, especially in collision with people, feels very real. The film may be rated PG but it very much feels like there is a 12 rating hiding just beneath the surface- and this is for good reason. Script writer James Gunn, now known for The Guardians of the Galaxy, has clarified that this was to be a more cynical take on the classic tales before Warner Brothers decided on a more family friendly approach. Language, jokes, sexual tension, and a kiss between Velma and Daphne were all cut, but hints at all of these things remain. There is a major focus on providing almost every member of the team with a love interest and I can’t help but wonder if Velma’s was added to distract from her obvious admiration for Daphne. Had the studio carried through on Gunn’s original plan, this would most likely have been one of the most important films of its age. Queer characters in a prominently children’s franchise would have meant so much the the community, especially its younger members, and I really admire Gunn for trying. While this element may be mostly missing, there is only a certain amount of skimpy clothing that can be ignored and Scooby Doo has plenty. There is only so much cleavage that you can cover with 2000’s CGI and I’d imagine that it helped the film keep that PG rating as well as keeping teenage eyes occupied.. Sadly, only one version of the film was made, so we will never see Gunn’s original script brought to life through a #ReleasetheGunnCut movement.
While the emotional and plot elements have sustained the test of time, the same cannot be said of the film’s CGI. Scooby himself is actually fairly decent, especially as far as his fur is concerned, and all these years later I find myself so thankful that they didn’t go down the photo-realistic route. Don’t get me wrong, I’m for photo-realism to an extent, but only in minimal amounts and only when required, because I think that it really won’t hold up to scrutiny. At best, it is slightly off-putting, but at worst you find yourself entering the uncanny valley and that is why I think Scooby’s design holds up. It’s CGI, but it isn’t ashamed to be, and allows him to remain closer to his 2D animated counterpart whilst sustaining all the cartoonish possibilities that entails. On the other hand, we have the island’s monsters which come out sort of rubbery. They don’t posses much detail and are probably supposed to be kind of scaly, but that does not translate well. With that said, none of the CGI, be it Scooby, the monsters or the floating spirit heads, are especially off-putting. In fact, it almost fits the cartoonish nature of the film and the very 2002 aesthetic that it has.
There are movies that feel dated, movies that feel timeless, and movies that feel exactly like the year in which they were made. Scooby Doo feels like 2002. The soundtrack is comprised of music from that year, which was designed to emulate the pop rock of the 1990s but doesn’t. There’s even a cameo from long-forgotten boyband Sugar Ray. Perhaps the most glaring demonstration of 2002 is the fashion. Liberty hair spikes, bedazzled jean pockets and denim-centric attire- you’re faves are all here! I feel like somebody should apologise for early 2000s fashion, not because it was offensive, but because it’s just really weird. Scooby Doo is a perfect encapsulation of how the world was upon its release and as such should be preserved as a historic artefact.
It’s become one of those “meme-able movies” but, if I’m honest, I think Scooby Doo is worth more than that. The characterisations are spot-on and the camp tone is perfectly Hana-Barbera. I appreciate it for being this fun little moment in the ever expanding history of the franchise, and I adore it for the sequel it gave us. Somehow this film remains the best attempt at a Mystery Inc motion picture, and includes so much of the joy and heart that the franchise is built on. I’m sad that we only ever got the two and now, thanks to Scoob!, I’m a little sad that they never spun this off into a whole Hana-Barbera Cinematic Universe. After all, that was kind of their thing.
Until Next Time…