It’s interesting how much change has been going on in Hollywood during a pandemic with regards to the way it’s able to roll out it’s new content. With movie theaters remaining shuttered, at least up to now, Hollywood has had a revenue stream completely cut off, and it’s been leading them towards finding a different mode of distribution. The streaming channels have provided one avenue, but it’s a area that hasn’t branched into the full market just yet as a sub-plant for the hole left behind by the closed theaters. In the wake of the pandemic, some studios are trying out something different, which is Video On Demand rentals, where customers on video rental platforms like Amazon and Itunes can pay a full upfront price to rent or purchase the movie digitally. Thus far, the studios have chosen to bypass the theaters altogether and opt for this VOD service instead to premiere a handful of new movies on. This has caused great concern from the theater market, who see the move as a threat to their hopes of recovery after this pandemic. AMC, the largest theater chain in the world and one of the hardest hit by the shutdown, even took action against Universal Studios for breaking from their distribution agreement by premiering Trolls World Tour (2020) on digital VOD without negotiating with them. In retaliation, AMC is now banning all future Universal films from their theaters, with the Regal chain joining them in solidarity. This spat between AMC and Universal however is not indicative of the industry as a whole. Warner Brothers is likewise setting some of their movies for VOD distribution, but they took the extra measure of notifying the theater chains that this would be the case, and it’s helped to maintain their ongoing agreement in tact, which Warner will definitely need because they are the first ones up once the theaters reopen later this summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Wonder Woman 84 still scheduled for theatrical premieres. But for now, they are in need of a boost on the VOD side, and they’re most hopeful bet this month is the animated film, Scoob!
The new movie is another in a long line of modern reboots of long-standing IP; in this case, the characters from Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo franchise. Created by animation veterans William Hanna and Joseph Barbera during their successful run as producers of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s, Scooby Doo, Where are You? was an instant hit with the “flower power” generation, and it’s success would continue to propel a further blossoming of new shows from the Hanna Barbera studios for decades. The only thing is, how do you make a product of it’s time resonate so many years later. For Hanna Barbera, the key to success was always in maintaining a connection to the audience through the characters. Thought the times would change, Scoody and his gang would remain true to their cores. Scooby the lovable, mischievous talking dog, Shaggy his ever devoted clumsy friend, Fred the headstrong leader of their mystery solving gang, Daphne the empathetic optimist who would always lift everyone’s spirits, and Velma, who let’s face it, was honestly always too smart to be running around with all these goofballs, and solved most of the mysteries almost single-handedly. The formula would remain the same throughout most of Scooby’s history, with the rag tag group discovering a super natural mystery involving ghost, monsters, or extra-terrestrials, and eventually uncovering the hoax behind them, usually with an unmasking on the real perpetrator. The Scooby Doo cartoons have often been imitated and parodied, but the franchise itself has nevertheless maintained it’s popularity and has seen many updates throughout the years. This year, they have made the jump to computer animation with Warner Brothers new film titled Scoob! The only question remains is whether it’s a Scooby do or a Scooby don’t.
The story shows us the Scooby gang at it’s very beginnings, with Scooby (voiced by Frank Welker) meeting a young Shaggy (Iain Armitage) on the sandy shores of Venice Beach. The two become instantly inseparable. On the following Halloween, they meet three other children, Fred (Pierce Gagnon), Daphne (McKenna Grace) and Velma (Ariana Greenblatt), and venture into a supposed haunted house where they solve their first real mystery. When they grow older, they decide to make their mystery solving business legit, but their investor has reservations about where Scooby and Shaggy (Will Forte) fit in, seeing them as a liability. With Scooby and Shaggy sidelined, the gang of Fred Jones (Zac Efron), Daphne Blake (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma Dinkley (Gina Rodriguez) must continue their work on their own. Shaggy and Scooby meanwhile are attacked by a mysterious horde of killer robots. The duo are almost captured until a mysterious ship intercepts them. They soon learn that it’s the Falcon Fury, the home base of Shaggy’s favorite super hero, the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his robotic canine companion Dynomutt (Ken Jeong). They inform Shaggy and Scooby that the robot army had been sent by a villain named Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), who is hunting down giant skulls belonging to the hell hound Cerberus in hopes of opening the gates to the Underworld, and Scooby it turns out is the key. Scooby agrees to help out Blue Falcon and his crew, but his growing partnership with Falcon begins to put a strain on his friendship with Shaggy, who begins to feel unwanted and forgotten. With Dick Dastardly’s sinister plan quickly taking form, and Scooby’s gang becoming increasingly splintered apart, the question remains if Scooby alone can be the hero everyone is telling him he should be.
Like I said earlier, this is not the first time Scooby has gone through an update to the present day. A couple of live action films were made in the early 2000’s, written by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, of all people. And there have been numerous new series revivals and direct to video movies made over the years as well. This new version does the same as a lot of other recent animated adaptations of long dormant franchises have done, like Illumination’s Dr. Suess films and the upcoming Spongebob Squarepants CGI movie. In the hopes of remaining relevant to an audience raised on the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, Scooby inevitably was going to make the jump to 3D eventually, and that kind of transition certainly had the potential to work out. Computer animation has certainly advanced to the point where you can create models of these characters that remain true to their original hand-drawn designs, and also still retain the Hanna Barbera style of simple, limited animation that made the original show so distinct. There was never any doubt that a new Scooby Doo movie would look good in Computer Animation. It’s just that, there needed to be care taken with the story in order to make it worth that effort. Unfortunately, the movie falls well short in the story department. There could have been two different directions that the filmmakers could have gone in updating Scooby Doo to the modern day; either making the story more sophisticated and reflective of our present day, or just throw in a lot of topical reference that will date the film horribly in a few years. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers went with the latter and it really drags the movie down and in many ways kind of insults the legacy of the characters.
The thing that really stings is that the movie actually starts off strong, with the prologue showing the characters in their early years. I actually thought the opening of this movie did a fine job of establishing the characters in a charming, heartfelt and quite funny way. However, the movie quickly looses its footing once the characters grow into adults, and I think you can easily pinpoint the exact moment when the movie goes downhill, and that’s the moment an awkwardly shoehorned Simon Cowell cameo is thrown in. From that moment on, the movie just becomes a steady stream of tired pop culture puns and break-neck pacing that gives the audience no time to settle. I really wish that the remainder of the movie had maintained the easy-going pacing of the first 10 minutes or so. I also think that the other big problem with the movie is that it completely abandons the Scooby Doo formula that has proven effective for over 50 years in favor of something that is more akin to a Marvel or DC superhero film. And that just doesn’t fit with Scooby Doo. There’s no mystery to uncover; we know who the bad guy is from the very beginning and there is no attempt at all to leave our heroes in the shadows. We’ve honestly seen this story done a million times before and adding Scooby Doo to the mix gives us nothing new. In fact, Scooby an the gang feel very out of place in this kind of story. The lack of originality in the story is compounded even further by the tired use of pop culture references, which is basically animation’s emergency solution for covering-up the shortcomings of a lackluster script. There are so many references thrown around to Netflix, Tinder, Hashtags, Harry Potter, and even dabbing. And it doesn’t come off as funny; it just cries of desperation. This is especially insulting for a movie adapting one of the more cleverly plotted series of it’s era. It doesn’t help that one of the most notable marketing ploys used for the film was a cross promotion with the Tik Tok app, showing that the filmmakers was more interested in making this movie more pop culture savvy than narratively engaging. Even the hip sounding abbreviated title Scoob! reeks of desperation. Warner Brothers honestly shouldn’t have tried to reinvent the wheel on this one, because there is a reason why the formula for the show has been used for so many years; because it works, and abandoning it just takes away all the charm that it could have had.
The characters in the story particularly suffer because of this lack of identity. I hate the fact that the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to split up the Scooby gang, because breaking them apart just robs the movie of all the character dynamics that could have been used to drive the humor in the movie. I’m sorry, but Fred, Daphne and Velma on their own is not a terribly exciting bunch. For some reason, they made Fred dumber than he ever was on the show as a way to fill in some of that missing comic relief that would have normally come from Shaggy and Scooby. The voice acting from Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried and Gina Rodriguez is passable, but the movie always drags a bit more when it returns to their story-line. Shaggy and Scooby do work out a bit better in their characterizations. Veteran voice actor takes on the role of Scooby fairly well, filling in for the late Don Messick, and it’s kind of special that he is a part of this film, given that his career actually started on the original animated series. Welker was the original voice of Fred Jones on the series, and that gig has since blossomed into a 50 year career in voice acting. He even occasionally returns to the role of Fred for various projects, but more recently he has been the go to guy for Scooby Doo, and it’s good that Warner Brothers still honors that. Will Forte, while not quite hitting that Casey Kasem tenor in the role of Shaggy, still manages to do an adequate job. I did also get a couple chuckles out of Mark Wahlberg’s “aw shucks” performance as the dim witted Blue Falcon. But, I definitely have to say that the movie is stolen by Jason Isaac’s over-the-top performance as Dick Dastardly. He breathes much needed life into this film every time he is on screen, and is by far the best part of the movie. It’s almost like Jason Isaacs was the only actor aware that he was making a cartoon and he gives a full camp performance worthy of the medium. It’s just too bad that nothing else within the movie rises to that level.
The animation itself is also a mixed bag. While the characters of Scooby and Shaggy do look on model compared to their original designs, the same does not hold up for most of the other characters. The movie gives this strange plastic feel to the human characters that makes their models feel a little off. This is especially noticeable in a character like Fred, who is the most visually different of all the original series characters in this movie. It’s in that weird, uncanny valley area where the characters are slightly exaggerated to fit within the colorful cartoony world, but also grounded in a more life-like physicality that just doesn’t mix well together. The worst example of this occurs when we meet Blue Falcon’s forgettable assistant Dee Dee (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), with her life like physicality clashing with her plastic-like skin. It’s like she’s a living action figure, and I have no doubt that there is a toy line model that bears the same striking resemblance to this character. It’s only when the movie exaggerates the character models that they come to life. Dick Dastardly, again, represents the best of this, as his distinctive look does leave an impression. I do recognize that the movie does still retain a high quality look throughout. It’s not animated poorly at all; it just suffer from some poor choices in character modeling. I like that the animators did include some nods to the slapstick bits done in the Hanna Barbera style that we all remember from the shows. And also, credit to the sound effects team for throwing in the original Hanna Barbera sound clips in certain moments as well, like the famous twinkle toes bit used in everything from Scooby Doo to The Flintstones. It’s something to help please the long time Hanna Barbera fans who are looking for something that does honor the legacy of these characters, which sadly is not in abundance in this movie.
So, is Scoob! worth the $20 rental for home viewing. Honestly, if you just want something to distract your kids for an hour and a half, you may find some use out of the movie, but for those who were hoping for a satisfying reboot of a beloved old franchise, I’d say save your money. Scoob! is little more than a cash grab, hoping to revitalize a known intellectual property and cynically mine it for some easy cash based in it’s nostalgia value. The biggest problem with the movie is that it seems to forget exactly what made Scooby Doo work so well as a franchise for so many years, and that’s the simple but effective formula that it’s maintained for 50 years. It’s trying to be less of a Scooby Doo movie and more of a super hero movie, and it’s just dragging the Scooby gang along for the cliched, predictable ride. Apart from an emotionally effective prologue and a entertaining villain, there really is nothing to make this movie stand out as a work of animation. The only reason we are really talking about this movie at all is because of it’s unorthodox way of reaching audiences in the middle of this ongoing pandemic. Trolls World Tour made headlines with it’s successful roll-out online, and Warner Brothers is hoping the same will happen with Scoob! Releasing with this kind of notoriety will certainly garner more headlines for Scoob! than it otherwise might have had in a Summer season where it would’ve had to contend with another Pixar film. But, believe me when I say that Scoob! is a forgettable waste of time that doesn’t nearly do justice to the long standing legacy of it’s characters. It’s not going to be a game changer that will bring the theatrical market to it’s knees. I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Brothers never releases a movie this way again. If you want a satisfying Scooby snack, just re-watch the original series again, or any of it’s adequate spin-offs. Scoob! is nothing to wag a dog’s tail at.