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Digital Media FX
Review of Scooby Doo
The tagline for the movie Scooby Doo is truer than perhaps it imagines. 'Be afraid. Be kind of afraid' the ads for the film call out and as you enter the theatre. You should be. Based on the classic cartoon, the live action/CGI Scooby Doo adventure strives to reach cartoon peaks while sitting in reality. Instead, though, Scooby Doo, as directed by Raja Gosnell, is an example of not leaving well enough alone. The film is competently built but as you watch it you have to wonder 'Why'. Why do these characters need the big screen treatment and why do they need to do it in the live action world? You question these things because the film does nothing to forward the characters or even make you remember why you liked them in the first place. The film, as constructed, offers a very forgettable two hours in the dark. A Scooby Doo movie could have been so many things, a dark take on the franchise (ala Batman), a comic caper, a statement about the seventies vs. today but instead what we get is a bland, watered down, cobbled together attempt to cash in on the nostalgia of adults and the base attraction of children.
The basics of the plot should be familiar to anyone who's ever seen any episode of any of the Scooby series'. The action takes place in the present day with the gang of Mystery, Inc. solving the mystery of the Luna Ghost. As they do, it becomes apparent that time has not played well on their relationships. The group is tired and frayed and as the mystery unravels so do they, breaking apart and heading off on their separate ways. Two years later the group is still on unspeaking terms when each is separately contacted by Spooky Island theme park owner Emile Mondavarius (Rowan Atkinson). They have been invited to solve the mystery of why the people at the island are turning into 'zombies'. Determined to prove that they in fact were the key member of the team, Daphne, Velma, Fred and Scooby and Shaggy all head out on their own to uncover the mystery. Of course circumstances bring the team together again to fight the villains and save the world. Sandwiched inside of all of this is a girlfriend for Shaggy, monsters that steal human protoplasm (try to explain that to a seven year old), the rock band Sugar Ray and a surprise (and I mean surprise) villain.
It sounds like an extended episode of the television series but what it feels like is more of a patchwork of scenes, almost as if they felt they had to put in this phrase or that relationship without really considering where to place it or how it would affect the overall feeling of the film. The hope I had going in was that in this 'fuller' version of the Scooby Doo story, we would receive an extension into the Scooby Doo universe. (In a way that 'The Brady Bunch Movie' (1995) added a layer to those classic characters.) Unfortunately what we find in Scooby Doo is just an uninspired re-hashing of the characters signature traits (Velma's smart, Daphne's pretty, Fred's bossy etc.). A more foreword thinking director might have taken these traits and pushed them into new and interesting directions or played them to their extremes but Gosnall, working from a story and script by Craig Titley and James Gunn, keeps things so middle of the road that you almost lose sight of each characters individuality. It's not that these characters need reinvented in any way; they just need to be defined by more than the clothes that they wear.
As Fred, Freddie Prinze Jr. bares the brunt of this 'blandness'. His Fred is an egotistical and vain publicity seeker who really offers nothing to the proceedings. Perhaps it would have been good to treat him here as they often did in the series, send him off-screen to search for clues. Prinze Jr. shades Fred towards the milquetoasty, frat-boy wimp, missing the opportunity to bring out the bully in him that you always felt was there.
Linda Cardellini plays Velma down the line. Smart, sensitive and quick thinking. While she hits her notes well, there's just not much for her character to do. Velma always seemed to be the character in the series with the most potential and alas after this film she remains just that, potential. (Note: Did not one person think to explore her sensitive sexuality?)
It is Daphne, as played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who undergoes the biggest transformation and unfortunately it doesn't really work. She starts the film as a near-flightly constant damsel in distress and ends it as a trained fighting machine. This transformation could have carried the film and given it the weight it so desperately needed but as presented it is one of the more wishy-washy growths of a film character in recent years. As written she's tough one scene, and helpless the next with no explanation or transition in between. It's as if the filmmakers couldn't decide how she should be so they split the difference and went in both directions. Gellar tries gamely, but too often she herself seems confused by her actions and is so busy trying to dance both sides that she has no real time to cultivate any unique character trait.
While all of the actors work hard to meet the (limited) needs of their characters, there is one who exceeded their mark. As Shaggy, Matthew Lillard turns in the performance of his career. (What that says about an actor who is in his early thirties can be left for you to decide.) Lillard has Shaggy's mannerisms and whinny voice down pat; he's exactly how you would imagine Shaggy if he wandered loose from your television set looking for a snack. In fact, he's more cartooney than Scooby Doo and therein lies the problem.
The CGI Scooby Doo, created by visual effects house Rhythm and Hues along with Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Crosman and a team of artists, is an effective creation. He moves and acts alongside his live action costars effectively. Scooby has a depth and a layer to him that, while not setting any new CGI landmarks, certainly lives up to the standards in this arena that a moviegoer expects. And when it comes to Scooby Doo, we have high expectations. We've seen Scooby running and hiding for over thirty years; he's become one of those entertainment icons that you can clearly see if you close your eyes. Given this, the effects artists were faced with a daunting task. They could have made Scooby an exact 'replica' of his cartoon self. This would have helped him to be a little less jarring when seen, for me it took a while to get used to the idea that the dog on-screen was Scooby Doo. The look was dissimilar enough that it took me out of the moment every time I saw him for the first half-hour or so.
The other direction that could have been taken was to make the dog as realistic looking as possible. This would have taken him further from his cartoon image, but it also would have grounded him with the actors better. In his current state, they all seem to be on two planes - live action and CGI instead of equally balanced. This dual world approach works with a character like Jar Jar Binks whom we have never seen before but with a case like Scooby it presents a different dilemma.
The Scooby that lives on the movie screen is a sort of the middle ground between the two worlds and the result is a Frankenstein's version of Scooby Doo, half real dog, and half cartoon animal. This lends its self to a certain inexpressiveness on Scooby's part, most likely because the animators can't seem to decide what Scooby is, cartoon dog or real dog. This 'indecision' if you will drove the project from the beginning as Crosman and the visual effects team sought to 'hybridize the characteristics of a real Great Dane with the cartoon dog.' The result is a very 'clean' Scooby who looks (as someone behind me stated) a little to 'computerish'.
The CGI work was not reserved for Scooby alone. Gone are the cartooney ghosts and monsters of the television show, replaced by some large, scary CGI creatures whose purpose is to chase people down and suck out their 'life essence'. While these creatures may not compare with the beasts of 'Alien', they did offer some genuine scares (although granted they were to a crowd that was desperate to offer any sort of reaction.) The monsters took center stage in a number of pivotal scenes, generally in locations that required a lot of action and actors. To this Gosnell must be given credit as unlike George Lucas, Gosnell shot his film off of real sets. This meant that the effects team spent a lot of time on the set, ensuring that the actions of the actors and extras were properly calculated so that the creatures could be added in when they were completed. This also meant that the actors had to spent countless hours acting opposite nothing. All of this work added up to some good integration of live action and digital effects. Unfortunately the effects did not always hold up their end of the performance agreement. Particularly, the monsters suffered from the same 'cleanliness' issues as Scooby. Their edges were crisp and clear and their movements were clean and precise. Perhaps if they moved and looked a little less perfect they would have brought a little more scare with them. Still their intensity and quickness offered a certain 'jump-factor' to the proceedings.
One noticeable hole in the film was the music. Gone is the seventies spook-hunting music, replaced by rock songs and dance beats. By not transferring at the very least the themes and feelings found in the music of the television show the filmmakers again missed an opportunity to grow and expand the universe of these characters.
Scooby Doo was created by the studio of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera in 1969 (in a nice touch the two were given Executive Producer credits on the film) and it has lasted in popularity for a reason. Unfortunately, rather than expand and build on this, those behind the Scooby Doo film have chosen to play it blandly safe. As they warn you themselves: 'Be Afraid'.
On a scale of 1 -
10, this picture gets a 2.