SCOOBY-DOO

PG

-By Ethan Alter


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The big-screen version of Scooby-Doo will make an excellent two-disc special-edition DVD someday. Just imagine the possibilities for bonus features: a behind-the-scenes "video diary," an explanation of how animators created the CGI Scooby, a featurette about the film's excellent production design (with a title like "The Look of Doo"), a brief history of the cartoon series, a gag reel with outtakes and deleted scenes, and finally, commentary tracks from both the director and the four stars chatting about the fun they had throughout the production. With extras like these, you'd never even have to watch the actual movie.

And that's a good thing, because Scooby-Doo is the kind of high-concept misfire which illustrates the downside of Hollywood's increasing trend towards corporate synergy. Somewhere in the middle of discussing commercial tie-ins, merchandising opportunities and special "Scooby-Doo" marathons on the Time Warner-owned Cartoon Network, Warner Bros. apparently neglected to greenlight a finished screenplay--the film often seems as if it was cobbled together on the spot.

The biggest problem with Scooby-Doo is that it can't decide whether it wants to respect or parody the classic cartoon. The post-modern ironic take on old television shows has been in vogue since The Brady Bunch Movie, but that approach requires the filmmakers to not hold back when ridiculing the source material. At first, it seems like screenwriter James Gunn and director Raja Gosnell are leaning in that direction with an opening sequence which recreates the ending of an average "Scooby-Doo" episode, complete with the unmasked villain muttering, "I would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for you meddling kids!" This scene isn't particularly funny, but it does contain a certain level of self-awareness that lets the viewer know the movie at least thinks it's in on the joke.

Things go downhill from there, for both the characters and the audience. After a two-year hiatus brought on by jealousy and in-fighting, the Mystery Inc. team, which consists of self-absorbed Fred (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), damsel-in-distress Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), brainy Velma (Linda Cardellini), stoner Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and, of course, canine pal Scooby, are reunited to solve a mystery at the aptly named Spooky Island. It's at this point that the film loses its way, ignoring parody in favor of loud action sequences and fart jokes. Gunn does come up with one funny idea (the characters are forced to switch bodies, leading to the inevitable moment when Shaggy-as-Daphne asks her rail-thin self, "Don't you ever eat?"), but the movie doesn't know where to take the gag and drops it after a scene or two. Worse still, the filmmakers actually try to impart life lessons to the audience, as if that's what they've come to a Scooby-Doo movie in search of. There's nothing wrong with reminding viewers of the importance of friendship, but these moments are handled in such a half-assed manner, it's clear they were only added to make the movie seem more family-friendly.

Gosnell has carved out a career for himself as a workmanlike director of B-grade comedies (his past films include Big Momma's House and Never Been Kissed) and his inexperience with big-budget filmmaking is glaringly apparent throughout Scooby-Doo. The action is poorly staged and the beautifully detailed sets are shot like backdrops; the images have so little depth, the cast might just as well have been standing in front of matte paintings. The CGI Scooby is another letdown. In close-up, the dog gives a good "performance"--even if this Scooby bears little resemblance to the original animated version--but the scenes with him interacting with his human pals aren't very convincing. Part of the blame lies with the actors, none of whom seems comfortable acting opposite an imaginary character (or each other, for that matter).

It will be interesting to see what audience Scooby-Doo winds up attracting during its theatrical run. Fans of the cartoon will probably feel more than a little insulted by this version, kids will laugh at Scooby's funny facial expressions but little else, and teens will most likely roll their eyes at the film's lame attempts to be hip. Like many television shows turned feature films, Scooby-Doo was a concept best left to the small screen.

--Ethan Alter


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