As live-action versions of TV cartoons go, “Scooby-Doo” ranks quality-wise somewhere between the inspired satire of “Josie and the Pussycats” and the lumbering obviousness of the “Flintstones” films. In terms of B.O. potential, however, Warners release stands to surpass all predecessors in its subgenre with doggone impressive theatrical numbers and scooby-dooby-groovy ancillary biz. Despite slapdash nature of plotting and occasional confusion within individual action set pieces, pic is just fast, frenetic and funny enough to amuse both new fans and longtime devotees of the characters who have inspired more than 30 years worth of animated TV episodes and made-for-video features.
Credit director Raja Gosnell (“Big Mama’s House,” “Never Been Kissed”) and his casting crew for spot-on matching of appealing live actors with familiar human characters.
And praise the CGI team led by visual effects coordinator Peter Crosman for the virtually seamless blend of live action and animated wizardry that allows the actors to persuasively interact with Scooby-Doo, the semi-heroic Great Dane with a distinctive speech impediment (Neil Fanning provides Scooby’s voice) and an insatiable appetite for Scooby snacks. The interplay here between human beings and digitally created co-star is even more matter-of-factly remarkable than in many big-ticket sci-fi spectacles.
The two-legged, late-teen leads of the long-running cartoon series emerge pretty much unchanged on the bigscreen. Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is the zestfully self-assured and unaccountably ascot-wearing leader of the detective team known as Mystery Inc. Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a blond beauty with terrific fashion sense and an unfortunate tendency to be abducted by bad guys.
Velma (Linda Cardellini) is the true brains of the outfit, a bespectacled uber-nerd who’s usually overshadowed by her flashier cohorts. And Shaggy (Matthew Lillard), Scooby-Doo’s best buddy, is a scruffy slacker with a constant craving for junk food, a blissfully self-absorbed worldview and an indefatigable readiness to run away from any and all danger.
(For many viewers, it was impossible to take Jan De Bont’s overbearing 1999 remake of “The Haunting” at all seriously because it so closely resembled a traditional Scooby-Doo scenario, and Owen Wilson was so obviously channeling the spirit of Shaggy.)
Scripter James Gunn shrewdly begins with a knowing wink at the “Scooby-Doo” mythos by introducing Scooby and the rest of the Mystery Inc. gang at the climax of a typical adventure.
The logic of movement and spatial relationships isn’t always easy to follow here — and the same, unfortunately, can be said of a few later action-adventure sequences — but Gunn and Gosnell get the basics right by having our heroes rely on luck and pluck to unmask yet another fake ghost. Pamela Anderson makes an unbilled appearance as a toy-company owner whose business is saved by Mystery Inc.
After the action, however, “Scooby-Doo” introduces an element of self-referential satire when the teammates are driven apart by jealousies and resentments: Fred is a fatuous hunk who too-readily grabs credit for Mystery Inc. triumphs, much to the consternation of the none-too-bright Daphne — who’s really, really tired of always being the damsel in distress — and the underappreciated Velma. Despite frantic efforts by Shaggy and Scooby-Doo to sustain the partnership, their three partners in crime-solving break ranks and take off.
Two years later, however, the team is reunited at Spooky Island, a popular spring break hot spot with a haunted house theme. Resort owner Emile Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson) claims Spooky Island may be infested with real, non-f/x ectoplasms.
Based on their past experiences, of course, the newly reunited Mystery Inc. members suspect a human hand behind the seemingly supernatural activity. (“Our area of expertise,” Fred notes, “is nut jobs in Halloween costumes.”) But, then again, our heroes have never before been in a live-action movie that owes almost as much to “Ghostbusters” as it does to its cartoon source material.
The plot has something to do with spirit-summoning ancient rituals, and something else to do with training white-bread teens to talk in gangstaspeak. (One of the movie’s biggest laughs involves Fred’s incongruous use of homeboy patois.) For the most part, though, the plot is merely an excuse for the human actors and the CGI Scooby-Doo to dash through familiar motions with occasional flourishes of self-parody.
There’s only one element that may disappoint faithful fans of the cartoon series: Because they have to fly to Spooky Island, the leads don’t spend much time driving around in their familiar Mystery Machine van.
The well-cast leads are nicely adroit at balancing satire and sincerity in their aptly cartoonish but pleasingly modulated performances. “Scooby-Doo” fans may be shocked and/or delighted to see that, at long last, Velma actually displays a bit of cleavage while wearing something other than her traditional sweater.)
But Atkinson isn’t given nearly enough to do in a role that could have used more over-the-top oomph, and other supporting players — including Miguel A. Nunez Jr. as a dubious voodoo practitioner and Isla Fisher as a cutie who falls for Shaggy — are stuck with even thinner parts. As a Spooky Island guest who takes a shine to Velma, Charles Cousins plays a character who’s so underwritten, he doesn’t even get a name. In the credits, he’s simply listed as “Velma’s Friend.”
On a tech level, “Scooby-Doo” — produced on location in Queensland, Australia — is first-rate across the board. Production designer Bill Boes does an especially fine job of evoking on screen the seriocomically scary look of the cartoon series settings.
By the way: Fans who never warmed to Scrappy-Doo, the annoyingly pugnacious pooch who was introduced late in the cartoon series, will have reason to rejoice. The little twerp finally gets what he deserves here.