REVIEW: SCOOB! – We Got A Universe To Work On

SCOOB! is the latest attempt to relaunch the Scooby-Doo brand, and with it a whole cinematic universe of classic cartoon characters. But taking Hollywood’s favorite trends of reboots, origin stories, superheroes, and shared universes doesn’t mesh for these meddling kids, leaving one frustrated with what could have been.

Scoob! was originally planned as the first big-budget theatrical Scooby-Doo film in over 16 years. Due to the recent COVID-19 crisis, it has been shifted to a home video release, which weirdly feels right at home for Scooby-Doo, which many people encountered on the small screen in reruns or in direct-to-video home releases in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Of all the Hanna-Barbara cartoon franchises, Scooby-Doo has stayed the most popular, having a number of television shows, straight to video films, and even two big-budget live-action adaptations in the early 2000s that were a big deal at the time of their release. Everyone the world over knows Scooby-Doo, the basic premise of his show, and what to expect from him. Yet while he is iconic and popular, the formula has been parodied, critiqued, and played straight so much one has to wonder how to make it exactly work for audiences after over 50 years.

The basic formula of almost every incarnation of Scooby-Doo boils down to a group of teenagers and the titular dog teaming up to investigate a supposed haunted or supernatural element, but every mystery had a logical grounded explanation for it. There were no real ghosts, ghouls, or goblins. Yet that format, because of how iconic and formulaic it’s become, tends to be jettisoned when the property is made into a film. “This time, the monsters are real,” was the big hook and selling point of both Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island and the 2002 Scooby-Doo film. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that to make it seem like a feature film and not just a long episode of a cartoon, you need a hook. The 2002 film was riding a recent nostalgic resurgence of the character in reruns and had the novelty of the first live-action Scooby-Doo. How can this new movie hook audiences when the original concept has been done so many times, the nostalgic angle of the first time has worn off, and the “monsters are real” premise is no longer new?

The new 2020 animated film’s major hook is that it isn’t just a Scooby-Doo film, but the starting point for Hollywood’s favorite trend: a cinematic universe. The plan is to expand to include the various characters from Hanna-Barbara’s other cartoons. This isn’t an entirely bad concept or hook. After all Scooby and the rest of the Mystery Gang have had numerous crossovers with various figures like Sonny and Cher to Batman and Robin. So the idea of Scooby-Doo crossing over with other franchises is not unheard of, and as far as trying to build a cinematic universe taking all the toys and dumping them together and see how they fit together can make for a fun novel creation and make for some clever crossovers (DC Comics published a line of Hanna-Barbara comics called Future Quest that accomplished this very idea). But like many ideas that sound good on paper, it is the execution that is fumbled.

This film’s emotional core is around the friendship of Scooby (Frank Welker) and Shaggy (Will Forte), how the two found each other when they were very young and meet Fred (Zac Efron), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma (Gina Rodriguez) and set up Mystery Incorporated. Yet when the team gets advice from Simon Cowell (no really, this joke feels 15 years too late), Scooby and Shaggy leave the team only to find themselves abducted by Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and Dynomutt, Dog Wonder (Ken Jeong) with assistance from Captain Caveman sidekick Dee Sykes (Kiersey Clemons). They need Scooby’s and Shaggy’s help in locating the lost skulls of Cerberus before Wacky Racer villain Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaac) can retrieve them and open the gates of hell. Scooby and Shaggy’s friendship will come into question when one realizes they have a heroic destiny. Does growing as a person/dog mean you are growing apart?

An admirable emotional hook for sure, and clever use of finding the connection among various Hanna-Barbara characters who are human and dog sidekicks. Yet that genuine cleverness further highlights how there is a tug of war going on at the core of this movie. A movie that wants to be both Iron Man (launch a shared universe) and The Avengers (a bunch of different franchises teaming up). It does have a lot in common with Warner Bros.’s last attempt at launching a cinematic universe, but at least Man of Steel and Justice League were two separate films. This would be like if Justice League started the franchise, but also was being sold as a Superman movie.

The problem here is that the film feels like two very different films put together, with the first twelve to fourteen minutes (being a retelling of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo and an opening montage that recreates the Scooby-Doo! Where Are You Opening!) seems like it should make up an entire first film setting up the dynamics of the team. The rest of the movie involves the team broken apart, which is a screenwriting trick used typically in sequels.

Because of how iconic Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby are to a general audience, one could make an argument that the film doesn’t need to waste time developing them; everyone already knows who they are. While the film plays with the recognizable versions of these characters, there are elements that are different. The 2002 Scooby-Doo film followed a similar model, but the entire film was about deconstructing and reaffirming their roles in the team. Here the group is separated till the end, so when they come together, there doesn’t seem as much of an impact.

This is the first time in a long time that the Scooby-Doo characters have been reworked for a modern setting. These meddling kids aren’t from the ’60s; these are kids born post-2000 (for reference, if these kids were real they would have been born AFTER the 2002 Scooby-Doo movie…let that sink in). Their new world view and perspective could make for an interesting exploration of what makes them similar to their original incarnations but also unique. Those new dynamics could have been the whole first movie, making audiences fall in love with these characters all over again. There is a reason they have remained popular. This was the perfect chance to remind people why.

The film also pays very minor lip service to the idea of there being a mystery. Here it is more of a treasure hunt film, and the usual Scooby-Doo set up is here ditched in favor of sticking the gang into a traditional superhero movie plot, even giving Scooby-Doo a special origin story. That doesn’t quite work, and you have to wonder: Blue Falcon could have been a fun superhero comedy/parody, so why not make that movie? There are plenty of superhero-type characters Hanna-Barbara could draw from to make a team (which is hinted at the end credits). Well, they aren’t popular enough, but Scooby-Doo is. So Scooby-Doo and his supporting characters are only here because they are marketable and familiar. Yet WB should have learned the lesson with Iron Man – who was not an A-list hero at the time – if you put in the effort to sell your concept and get the right people it could work.

The animation itself, while not entirely groundbreaking, is pretty to look at, with sharp bright vibrant and simplistic color choices that make every scene pop. It is not quite The Peanut Movie of using CGI to match the models of the 2D animation, but it is a good enough job. And as with the case of many Warners Animations movies as of late, like Storks and Smallfoot, the film is heavily influenced by the energy and slapstick of old Looney Tunes cartoons. That is a nice fusion with the sometimes stilted budgeted look of those old Hannah Barbara cartoons.

On the voicework side, it does take some time adjusting to the new voices, but all fit themselves adequately. Yet it’s the voicework on the lesser-known Hannah Barbara characters that really stands out. Mark Walhberg probably gives his funniest and most sincere turn in a while, with a reminder of why his shtick is appealing. Ken Jeong is a great straight man as Dynomutt, here taken from being the silly hero to the more experienced one to contrast with this new Blue Falcon. Tracey Morgan shows up as a character I’m not quite sure counts as a spoiler but is perfect. The standout is Jason Isaac as Dick Dastardly, who finds the right balance of scenery-chewing and genuine menace. This is a Tim Curry level of camp performance and the film is all the better for it.

Overall as something new to get the family together during quarantine, I can think of worse ways to spend 90 minutes. It is harmless and plays like one of the direct to video Scooby-Doo movies where many generation Y and Millennials were first introduced to Scooby-Doo. Yet for fans of the series and characters, one has to wonder how much can be enjoyed when it feels like the title character is only here to help relaunch other characters and gets the short end of the stick.  As a start of a cinematic universe, while it leaves you wanting more it also makes you wish the beginning chapter was stronger and that the studio had more faith in these characters and concepts.