Written by Musgo del Jefe
Musgo has enjoyed the Scooby-Doo franchise since its very beginnings. And when the original entries began to wane in the late ’80s with some terrible TV films like Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf (1988) – I still held out hope. The premise is so simple and brilliant that I kept faith in a return to form. I was rewarded in the late Nineties with the return to grandeur of the franchise with the new direct-to-video series of films starting with Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998). The series of releases have kept up to one or two per year since and I’ve been anxious to step up and review each and every one of the past five up through this past Fall’s Scooby-Doo! Camp Scare. But somehow in all of my Scooby mythology, I missed the live-action theatrical releases. Lucky for Musgo, the first two live-action films have been released as a Family Double Feature Blu-ray from Warner Bros. with Scooby-Doo (2002) on one disc and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004) on a second disc.
Whenever looking at a live-action version of an animated series (especially one so well entrenched in our pop psyche) it’s important to look at the casting choices. The cast and crew essentially remained the same from one movie to the sequel.
Director: Raja Gosnell. Previous to these two films, his best known work was probably Big Momma’s House (2000) and Home Alone 3 (1997). The reliance on broad slapstick humor in both of those films is a clue to what we were getting ourselves into with these films.
Writer: James Gunn. His association with Troma films and the writing on The Specials gave me a little more confidence in the project. The man has a good instinct for horror – witness his work on the Dawn Of The Dead remake – and that’s just what a live-action Scooby-Doo film needs.
Shaggy Rogers: Matthew Lillard. Never a big fan of his – I was hoping to see more of what we saw of him in SLC Punk but as I feared, we got more of him as we saw in Scream. I think that trying to do the physical comedy of Shaggy and pull off the voice was too much in these films. He’s very self-conscious in his movements. Maybe part of that is constantly acting with a computer generated dog. But he’s grown into the voice portion of the character and sounds much more natural currently doing the voice for the animated films and the TV series.
Daphne Blake: Sarah Michelle Gellar. This is the casting coup of the film. Having an actress who fights the supernatural weekly on TV was the perfect transition for an audience to latch onto the film series. Sarah added the cool factor that wasn’t there with the rest of the cast. Her relationship with Freddie Prinze, Jr. outside of the movie created one more level of interest. She’s the most comfortable of the cast in her role and by the second film, she has morphed little Daphne into a butt-kicking Buffy-lite.
Fred Jones: Freddie Prinze, Jr. The connection with Sarah Michelle Gellar aside, this is the casting choice that makes the least sense to me. Freddie plays the character with such a fake confidence (that of an actor desperate to find a franchise) that misses the humor of the over confidence of the cartoon version. Freddie comes across as a character acting to the crowd – not one who has no idea how he is viewed by others. His Fred seems to wander through both films – unsure how to play up the subtle humor that his character demands.
Velma Dinkley: Linda Cardellini. Another great casting choice. Linda was coming off her brilliant portrayal of Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks. The role of Velma played only slightly against that type and put her in the smart and nerdy role. Unfortunately, the Velma character is another one that’s very subtle in the TV show. Recent efforts to give her more of a leading role in the gang have usually failed because they don’t fit the character as designed. What happened over two movies here is that she ended up finding a niche as Willow to Daphne’s Buffy.
Scooby-Doo: Computer Generated. Obviously, there aren’t many other ways this could be done for a live-action film. But I think it’s also where the movies fall apart. Both of them rely on calling attention to all the things that an animated Scooby can do. He can dance and dress up as a funny character and dance again and eat lots of food and talk funny. Those are all important things to the series but rarely do the better Scooby stories stop the plot to allow the viewer to marvel at the computer animation. It’s silly and takes away from any momentum the films could have.
Scooby-Doo (2002). The first film starts off a bit like the direct-to-video series did. We start at the end of a case where Fred’s actions as the leader offend the others who believe he gets too much credit for solving the mysteries. Mystery, Inc. breaks up and goes their own ways only to be reunited mysteriously for a case on Spooky Island. Up to the arrival at the amusement park on Spooky Island, the start is very promising. The deconstruction of the group and characters post-Mystery Inc. led me to believe they were going to take the route that the Brady Bunch Movie had done so well – that the gang existed in an ironic world of their own where others lived very normal lives.
But the introduction of the actual mystery throws that plot departure out the window. There’s little to like about the mystery. It’s a series of clues that just serve to show off more of the talents of the computer animation folks at Warners. There’s a generic voodoo plot and protoplasmic heads that lead to gags that just don’t come off very well. The broad physical humor aimed at a younger audience doesn’t play well against the token adult references (Shaggy’s love interest is named Mary Jane!). The final reveal is more of a relief than a revelation. Despite what should have been a clever solution – I was all computer animated out – too much to care.
Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004). The second time around with the cast starts again with a promising premise. Once again, there’s a deconstruction of how the Mystery, Inc. is viewed by the press and their fans in general. Their arrival at a grand opening at The Coolsonian Criminology Museum gives us some insight into how their characters handle the fame of solving all the mysteries. But instead of pursuing these angles – the crew is thrown into a new mystery right away. The problem with both films is partially that the series worked best in a 22-minute format. Expanding the running time to over four times that and still only solving a single mystery gives the director too much time to show off the special effects department. There is plenty of time in there to pursue the inter-personal relationships and add a depth to the characters that is wasted.
The best idea to come out of the sequel is the use of monsters from the animated series. The plot device of bringing back previous monsters is fun for an audience who grew up watching the series. Unfortunately, in an effort to make the special effects look even better – there isn’t complete attention paid to making the monsters look like they did on the series. I was excited to see The Black Knight (from “What A Night For A Knight”), The Miner Forty-Niner (from “Mine Your Own Business”) and one of my favorites The Zombie (from “Which Witch Is Which?”). Their appearances lends that connection to the original series that was lacking in the first film. But it’s quickly overlooked in the second also.
The movie only ends up hinting at how it should have been made. The appearance of Seth Green as a supporting character is your first clue. Seth’s character becomes the love interest of Velma who is now fully in the Willow role from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Daphne spends most of the film fighting in the same style as Buffy too. It’s ironic that the TV show that is practically a live-action version of Scooby-Doo became the biggest influence on the sequel. In the hands of Josh Whedon, this series would have found the right tone. He knows to let the characters pull the viewer into the story. The plot needs to be big only in the type of challenge it provides to the protagonists. The only mystery here is how quickly can we get to the end. The monster-making machine is of no interest and it doesn’t feel equal to the size of the plan. Once again, the movie ends on a predictable and less than clever note.
I can’t deny the attraction of the films to a younger audience. The slapstick humor and over-the-top computer animation plays well on its own – just not within the Scooby-Doo universe. Each Blu-ray comes with additional scenes, making-of documentaries, short featurettes mainly on computer animating Scooby and music videos. The 1080p HD is wonderful and the 5.1 Dolby sound makes the Outkast song from the first film really pop (the best moment of the two films!).