By far the top-grossing live-action comedy adapted from a TV cartoon, 2002’s “Scooby-Doo” impressed both new fans and longtime devotees of the popular TV series with its spot-on casting of human lead characters and its seamless commingling of real people and a CGI Great Dane. Unfortunately, “Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” doesn’t have that novelty value going for it. Sequel is louder and more elaborate (and even slightly longer) than predecessor, but the law of diminishing returns has caught up with this franchise. Although new pic almost certainly will post upbeat opening-weekend numbers, final gross and ancillary biz may generate second thoughts about already announced “Scooby-Doo 3.”
Helmer Raja Gosnell (“Never Been Kissed”) and scripter James Gunn (“Dawn of the Dead” remake) return for the repeat, as do four leads — Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini — playing young crime-solvers known collectively as Mystery Inc. Just as important, if not more so, visual effects supervisor Peter Crosman returns to animate Scooby-Doo (again voiced by Neil Fanning).
Much like previous pic, “Scooby-Doo 2” is aimed at viewers already familiar with mythos of original TV series. Sequel begins with Mystery Inc. lionized in hometown of Coolsville, where recently constructed Coolsonian Criminology Museum promises an exhibition of disguises worn by creepy villains who have been unmasked over the years by “those meddling kids.”
But the exhibit’s opening-night festivities are interrupted by a real monster — specifically, a seriously predatory version of the notorious Pterodactyl Ghost — and an Evil Masked Figure who threatens Mystery Inc. with future appearances by more monstrosities. Villain makes good on threat by using a fantastical machine to transform inanimate costumes into walking-and-stalking editions of the Black Knight Ghost, the Skelemen, the 10,000 Volt Ghost and similar miscreants.
Thanks to rabble-rousing and shamelessly slanted reports by TV journalist Heather Jasper-Howe (Alicia Silverstone), outraged Coolsville citizens blame Mystery Inc. for unleashing monsters in their midst. Young heroes suspect a former foe — Old Man Wickles (Peter Boyle), who once wreaked havoc while disguised as the Black Knight Ghost — is behind current plague of real bogeymen.
Among the “scary” stuff, Gosnell and Gunn have concocted a feel-good message — “Be true to yourself” — that is delivered repeatedly, and tediously, throughout “Scooby-Doo.” Chronic fraidy-cats Shaggy (Lillard) and Scooby feel the need to prove themselves. Image-conscious Daphne (Gellar) worries she’s just a beautiful cipher, while the dashing Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is briefly torn by troubling self-doubt.
Most alarmingly of all, bespectacled uber-nerd Velma (Cardellini) figures she must take drastic steps to overcome her newly diagnosed “fear of intimacy.” So she transforms herself into a glamorous uber-babe in a bright red catsuit to make herself more appealing to museum curator Patrick Wisely (Seth Green).
When “Scooby-Doo 2” isn’t trafficking in absurdly incongruous psychobabble, or lurching clumsily at heartstrings while “humanizing” its cartoon-spawned characters, pic provides a plethora of f/x-filled action-comedy sequences. As he did in previous pic, helmer Gosnell occasionally fails to clarify the specifics of spatial relationships during major action set-pieces.
Comic sequences are inventive but uneven. Typical is seg in aptly named Faux Ghost bar, where Wickles and other villains previously unmasked by Mystery Inc. gather to drink and reminisce. Set-up is promising, but payoff (involving Shaggy and Scooby disguised as ’70-era disco dogs) is, at best, modestly amusing.
Pic overall is more frenetic than funny, indicating a self-defeating obsession with topping previous pic’s more spectacular elements. “Scooby-Doo 2” is not entirely charm-free — Cardellini once again glows with foxy/nerdy radiance, Lillard is reliably goofy, Prinze and Gellar are playfully self-satirical — but strenuous effort is apparent in almost every frame.
On the plus side, CGI-rendered Scooby-Doo remains pretty doggone remarkable. Other tech values are impressive, if a tad overwhelming.