Blame it on “The Avengers.” Or better yet, “Justice League.” Those superheroes are so popular with audiences that Hollywood studios got it in their heads that the world wants to see “expanded universe” movies — unwieldy ensemble productions that bring together half a dozen or more stand-alone characters for a single umbrella adventure. Marvel and DC team-ups make a certain sense, since those super-friends frequently pool their powers in comic book form as well, but not so other brands, and though a handful of movies were greenlit under the strategy — including Universal’s “Bride of Frankenstein” and Warners’ “Godzilla vs. Kong” — they’re burning out or disbanding one by one.
That leaves WB’s computer-animated “Scoob!” looking awkwardly out of touch in several ways. First, it’s a pricey feature adaptation of a classic TV show that, because of the coronavirus outbreak, will instead be debuting via streaming — doomed to a small-screen fate. On the surface, “Scoob!” looks like a benign, back-to-basics reboot (compared with two regrettable big-screen live-action movies), when in fact, it’s a calculated attempt to revive not just Scooby-Doo and his friends for another generation, but also a handful of other unrelated cartoon characters most kids probably haven’t heard of.
“Scoob!” is the first salvo — and likely also the last, for the foreseeable future, at least — in a Hanna-Barbera crossover bonanza, resurrecting such dusty, disparate characters as Dynomutt and Blue Falcon, Dick Dastardly (of the “Wacky Races” series) and Captain Caveman, alongside the Mystery Inc. team. When confined to their respective shows, these eccentric goofballs were all reasonably entertaining in their own right (some more than others), and yet they don’t naturally coexist in the same world, forcing the film’s four credited screenwriters — Matt Lieberman, Adam Sztykiel, Jack Donaldson and Derek Elliott, working from a story by Lieberman, Eyal Podell and Jonathon E. Stewart — to contort the plot like a rickety roller coaster so as to accommodate them all.
Doing so forces “Scooby-Doo” outside its own genre. Debuting in 1969, the popular Saturday-morning cartoon pioneered a kind of amiably corny teen-detective template, putting a groovy comedic spin on earnest old Nancy Drew-style mysteries. Each week, the young sleuths followed seemingly supernatural clues en route to unmasking a different villain, who invariably swore, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids,” at the end of the episode.
“Scooby-Doo’s” enduring popularity has as much to do with its characters as the show’s retro flower-powered flavor, present in everything from costumes to catchphrases to a crime-fighting van with its psychedelic paint job. The now-three-dimensional characters look great, vastly expanding their range of poses while sticking reasonably close to the classic designs. And yet, personality-wise, “Scoob!” steers things in a different direction.
Here, the Mystery Inc. buddies — laid-back Shaggy (Will Forte), studly Fred (voiced by Zac Efron), redheaded Daphne (Amanda Seyfried), bespectacled Velma (Gina Rodriguez) and their insatiably hungry mascot/mutt Scooby-Doo — belong to the post-millennial generation, born in the shadow of 9/11, who grew up in a world of hybrid cars and constant internet connectivity. Marijuana has been legalized in most states, and yet, Shaggy no longer reads like a counterculture figure, despite hanging out near Venice Beach, where he adopts (and names) Scooby Dooby Doo in a flashback prologue. Meanwhile, the rest of the film takes place under inexplicably futuristic conditions.
After narrowly escaping a robot attack at the local bowling alley (do Gen Zers still go bowling?), Shaggy and Scooby are abducted by a UFO — which isn’t as sinister as it sounds, since it turns out to be Blue Falcon’s ship, captained by his son (Mark Wahlberg) and his save-the-day robo-dog Dynomutt (Ken Jeong). This might have been an inspired match-up, as both are heroes with canine companions, although the parallel is tenuous at best, and leads to a lot of “Star Wars”-style trick flying scenes. Except “Star Wars” isn’t part of this extended universe, which makes frequent references to other Warner Bros. properties (Harry Potter, Wonder Woman, Lord of the Rings and so on).
Simon Cowell makes a brief appearance, however, leading to a temporary split in the gang as Fred, Daphne and Velma branch out on their own. The plot barely makes sense from scene to scene, although there’s plenty of energy and some decent animation involved in set-pieces that are so forgettable, most have already slipped my mind mere hours after viewing them. Somehow, Scooby winds up on the remote Mystery Island, named after the obvious question of “What is it doing in this movie?”
Not to be confused with Mystery Inc. (the group’s detective amateur agency) or the Mystery Machine (their “anachronistic van”), this remote location allows for an appearance by Captain Caveman (Tracy Morgan) before things move on to Athens for the grand finale. One thing virtually all the Scooby-Doo movies seem to misunderstand is that Shaggy and Scooby are easily spooked by paranormal-seeming appearances, whereas their more skeptical companions typically come along to reveal how these were staged (via hidden strings and scary costumes). In the features, wildly impossible things really do happen — which upsets the dynamic entirely.
In lieu of pinning everything on some low-key local rascal, “Scoob!” significantly upgrades all-purpose Hanna-Barbera scoundrel Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs) from pathetic Wile E. Coyote-esque scheme-ster to high-tech mastermind. As older viewers may recall, Dastardly also has a canine connection, although it’s best left up to viewers to discover how his snickering dog Muttley factors into this convoluted story. Suffice to say, Dastardly’s plan involves unleashing Cerberus, the mythological three-headed dog who guards the underworld, although by the time that has happened, the movie has already overstayed its welcome by a good half-hour.
Then again, these are trying times, and parents may be grateful to have a virtual babysitter to distract their kids for 90 minutes, in which case, “Scoob!” is surely more effective than sitting them in front of the fish tank. Plus, renting the film on demand (for a whopping $19.99, or just $5 more to buy) spares adults the obligation of sitting through the movie themselves — although those other classic Hanna-Barbera characters are likely to appeal more to parents, and the animation work would have held up fine on the big screen. They will also remember that this is hardly the first Hanna-Barbera crossover experiment: Yogi Bear’s friends were always turning up in his movies, and in 1987, the Jetsons met the Flintstones, all in made-for-TV specials.
This whole distribution strategy is a big risk — and an almost certain loss — for Warner Bros., although Universal seems to have done all right pioneering the straight-to-streaming model with “Trolls World Tour,” and animation is reportedly among the most-watched content during lockdown. Given the expanded-universe approach, “Scoob!” was clearly conceived with sequel and spinoff potential in mind, and yet, this approach imposes a significant downgrade in those ambitions. Then again, so might waiting. Jeepers! Damned if you Doo, damned if you don’t.