We've only ourselves to blame. Our love for, if not obsession with, the detritus of popular culture has led us here--once more, into a theater screening a multimillion-dollar adaptation of a cartoon that always looked like it cost $4.93 to manufacture. (Of the cartoons proffered by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, among them The Flintstones and Space Ghost and Jonny Quest, Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones once said they reminded him of "radio with pictures.") We're knee-deep in the big business of nostalgia, which seeks to transform the most trivial bit of childhood effluvia (childhood, that is, if you grew up in the '70s and '80s) into big-screen and big-money payoffs, too often with no success. Jesus could turn water into wine, but not even the smartest Hollywood executive, if there is one, could spin gold out of mundane animation cels. Witness last year's big-screen Josie and the Pussycats, which coughed up little more than a hairball at the box office; it tanked, most likely, because it belittled the very audience it seduced, the teenybopper with spare change. There was no pop to its pop music or pop-culture references, and in the end it played as though it was just embarrassed by its roots.
Scooby-Doo, yet another Hanna-Barbera production writ big-screen, does almost the same thing: It mocks one segment of its audience (adults weaned on the dull adventures of Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, collectively known as Mystery Inc.) while almost ignoring their children altogether. (At a Saturday-morning preview screening, kids were overheard telling their parents they were either scared or tired; adults were most likely scared of being tired.) It has no idea who it's for, so it plays to no one at all--not even the filmmakers, it seems, who've stitched together a lumbering beast made of flesh and computer-generated imagery that bores you into submission. It, too, acts as though it's ashamed of its pedigree in a rather pedestrian cartoon that was about little more than four kids fighting old men in ghost masks week after enervating week. "Our area of expertise is nutjobs in Halloween costumes," says Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who delivers most of her lines with a shrug. But she and her fellow actors aren't there to serve the story, only to move product. Scooby-Doo, like every film aimed at children these days, is little more than a protracted infomercial meant to sell lunch boxes and action figures. Everything else--writing, direction, acting--is secondary, and it feels like it.
It opens with a dull adventure right out of the old series: Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr., whose blindingly blond hair at least suggests he's playing someone else), Velma (Freaks and Geeks' Linda Cardellini, whose TV-teen torment has turned into a pinched whine), Daphne (Gellar, wearing more purple than Prince), Shaggy (Matthew Lillard, eerily channeling Casey Kasem, which makes him oddly more compelling) and a horribly computer-generated Scooby-Doo (in some scenes, actors aren't even looking at the "dog") battle a ghost in a toy factory, only to reveal their nemesis as an old man with a grudge against Pamela Anderson, herself a cartoon character (and looking, these days, very CG herself). Like the entire film, this introduction is directed by Raja Gosnell (Big Momma's House) without style or wit. We're not sure if it's an homage to the original cartoon or a parody of it. So it becomes a punch line without a premise, a joke built entirely from musty memories of half-dimensional characters--Daphne as the damsel in distress, Velma as misunderstood genius, Fred as lamebrained narcissist, Shaggy as beatnik dumb-ass. The revelation that the ghost is just a man in a mask is presented as a shrug; the filmmakers know we know, but the fact we're all in on the joke doesn't make it funny all by itself. No one seems interested in the heavy lifting, so the movie lies there--paws up.
The rest of the film takes place on Spooky Island, a creaky theme park run by Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean, now just a pod) and populated by zombie-like spring-breakers and Sugar Ray, which makes one wonder just when Carson Daly will show up. (Sadly, never; he did his tour of duty in Josie, though one wonders if this film was shot during an MTV Spring Break special.) The Mystery Inc. team is left to solve the secret of just who is brainwashing the kids, which is about as enervating a premise as possible--who cares? The plot serves as little more than a thin frame upon which screenwriter James Gunn (responsible for 2000's super-hero parody The Specials) hangs his limp lines (most of which end in "zoinks") and flat jokes, an odd number of which involve smoking pot--which makes sense, since Warner Bros. is presumably aiming this movie not at children but at full-grown dopers with bad munchies stuck to the Cartoon Network. Dude, pass the Scooby Snacks.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.