It’s that time of year again! The time for spooky spirits, and stocking on candy for trick-or-treaters. And where there’s ghosts and sugar, there’s a group of meddling kids with their talking dog to investigate the matter. Every Halloween season, TheCinematicBandicoot (or TheHorrorBandicoot come every October) covers material surrounding Scooby-Doo. Why? Because it’s a franchise that has lasted for half a century, with plenty of content to cover during the month of hallows eve. And this time we’re taking a look at the live action duology written by James Gunn and directed by Raja Gosnell.
These films came about after Ted Turner broadcasted a good chunk of older animated content, including Scooby-Doo! Where Are You, on his then new channel, Cartoon Network. Coupled with the positive reception of Zombie Island, and other direct-to-home media movies, Warner Brothers greenlit a live-action adaptation for release in 2002.
What many people are unaware of when it comes to the first movie is that it was supposed to be written for adults who grew up with the show. Thus, it would have tackled some of the long-rumored conspiracies. Shaggy would’ve been a stoner, and Velma would’ve been a lesbian. However, Warner Brothers forced Gunn to re-write the screenplay for a more family friendly audience after complaints from a test screening. The result is the confusing experiment that we know today.
Years of solving mysteries has brought tension between the members of Mystery Incorporated: Fred Jones (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne Blake (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma Dinkley (Linda Cardellini), Shaggy Rogers (Matthew Lillard), and Scooby-Doo (Neil Fanning). Going their separate ways for a number of years, they are all recruited by Emile Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson), the owner of the popular spring break amusement park Spooky Island. He needs their help to solve a mystery that has his guests being possessed by an ancient evil entity.
Looking back with the knowledge of Gunn’s original script, the final commodity feels like a purgatory victim, with no commitment to a singular tone. There are numerous pick your poison scenarios between the usual risky jokes thrown in for parents who were dragged to this by their kids, and juvenile flatulence that was commonplace for all cartoons making the leap to this mundane Earth. One minute has an elongated fart joke that earned a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award, the next is what appears to be Fred berating Scooby for a confusing Christmas party trick, unless you have urban dictionary on standby. It is shockingly ironic for a program that was created to quell the complaints parents had with the more action-packed Hanna-Barbera cartoons at the time, but it also shows how the executive meddling turns this into a boxing match when it comes to the humor: does it want to satirize or pay tribute to the series? A lot of material that was perfected in Zombie Island is bastardized for this incarnation: the gang splitting up, the imaginative cartoon physics, and most importantly dealing with real monsters rather than the formulaic criminals in costumes. The mystery itself is decent in execution, but the material surrounding said mystery is what kills the intrigue.
Similar to other live-action takes on cartoons at the time, the animation comes off as mixed. There are a lot of impressive practical effects, presenting Spooky Island as a goth’s alternative to Disneyland with creepy animatronics, eerie sets, and ominous secrets. The computer animation however, gets the short end of the budget. You could argue that bad animation is a staple of Hanna-Barbera, but for a multi-million dollar blockbuster, it highlights all the problems that live-action faces when trying to encompass the limitless potential of animation. Scooby-Doo’s design comes off as unnatural when mixing the realistic great dane breed with the exaggerated cartoon movements. At first the production looks amazing, but as the plot progresses, the low budget elements start to seep through the cracks.
In all fairness, the cast is the most memorable aspect, with Matthew Lillard as the crown jewel embodying Shaggy Rogers in voice, style, and mannerisms, all the while playing off an invisible dog. Linda Cardellini comes in second place by injecting Velma with the snarky personality that would become and ever increasing presence from here on out. Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself, Sara Michelle Gellar, expands Daphne’s character beyond the damsel in distress while displaying some stylized fight sequences. Finally, Freddie Prinze Jr takes the one note leader that is Fred and actually makes him a likeable jerk, not an easy task to accomplish. Though it’s surprising that stuntman, Neil Fanning never went on to voice Scooby-Doo in future incarnations aside from several video games, since he perfectly nails the voice and speech impediment.
Scooby-Doo is another victim of the live-action cartoon adaptations that have thankfully been dying out in recent years. While the casting is superb, the sets are well constructed, and the emphasis on the supernatural is always welcome, it doesn’t make-up for the low budget computer animation, juvenile humor, and confused tone from the executive meddling. However, after being disappointed with 2020’s Scoob!, an animated opportunity that was presented on a silver platter before being pre-maturely cremated, this has its place in pop culture. It would be interesting if the audio for this was utilized for an animated remake: one for the original PG-13 Gunn script, and one for the more family friendly version Warner Brothers demanded midway through production. Comparatively, there have been more clever satires of the series over the years with the likes of Venture Brothers and Robot Chicken, but how would a follow up improve from this?
Pros: Mystery Inc cast, Matthew Lillard, practical sets, super natural angle, Spooky Island
Cons: uncanny computer animation, juvenile humor, dated early 2000’s trends, confused tone
Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed
Two years later, a sequel was released with more focus on the target audience, and the entire cast reprising their roles. James Gunn and Raja Gosnell returned to write and direct on an even tighter budget of twenty-five million dollars: a major decrease compared to the original’s eighty-four million. How does it compare?
Mystery Incorporated is living the celebrity life with the opening of their exhibit at the Coolsonian Museum: a collection of costumes celebrating all the monsters they have unmasked. But an evil masked figure (Scott McNeil) seeks to media shame the group while brining the costumes to life for an all out assault on Coolsville. After an embarrassing turn of events, Shaggy and Scooby attempt to solve the mystery alone in order to prove their worth to the gang. Velma, on the other hand, deals with a potential love interest in the form of the museum’s curator, Patrick Wisely (Seth Green).
Obviously there’s a better sense of who this is made for: fans of the show who prefer the classic formula as well as kids. And this time around, the cast has better chemistry amongst each other, making the emotional moments, particularly between Scooby and Shaggy, genuine. The monster designs are also creative for a live-action transformation, and even incorporate a good amount of practical costumes.
But then the childish humor involving gross out gags constantly overshadow the few humorous surprises, which for a James Gunn script is disappointing. There’s less scale in production as a result of the lower budget, with the set feeling cramped compared to the expansive Spooky Island attractions, and the CGI looks even more fake. In fact, it makes the first movie’s computer animation look like 2016’s Jungle Book. The sloppy editing also slows down most of the action, which is ironic compared to the show’s limited animation. Whenever a choreographed stunt is on screen, the camera cuts to so many angles, breaking the flow of what could possibly be some amazing auditions for Cirque du Soleil. It doesn’t even measure up to Daphne’s one on one fight with the wrestler in the first film.
Worst of all, the mystery itself is weak in terms of deductive reasoning, and building connections between red herrings and the actual culprit. Again, something that the first movie attempted to bridge, even if it wanted to be more of a satire than a faithful recreation.
Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed is a slight improvement in one area, but a major decline everywhere else, almost as if these two films should be in reverse chronological order. It feels more like an extended live-action episode thanks to the downgraded digital effects, smaller scale, childish humor, clumsy editing, and possibly one of the worst mystery’s of the entire franchise without going into spoilers. At the very least, the first film wanted to branch its narrative outside the television structure to feel like a movie, despite the tonal whiplash. However, the biggest issue is that, like a lot of theatrical live-action cartoons, Scooby-Doo is not a property that works in reality, and deserves to stay animated, no matter how much people claim the medium to be a distraction for kids. And that’s where the franchise would end up after exiting theaters. Despite making a profit, Scooby Doo 2 made less money than anticipated, prompting Warner Brothers to cancel a planned threequel that would’ve been written and directed by James Gunn, which is a shame because it would have been interesting to witness the direction of this incarnation under Gunn’s full control. While both movies don’t stand out from the crop of mediocre live-action cartoon adaptations, they are a necessary evil for those who were involved. People like James Gunn, Matthew Lillard, and Linda Cardellini became household names thanks to these movies, and would become fan favorites in other successful media to the point where people got angry that Warner Brothers didn’t cast Lillard as Shaggy in 2020’s Scoob!. As for whether or not these films are worth watching, they are better than the future television reboots, but unless you’re willing to overlook the many flaws, these mysteries are better left unsolved.