Just over 50 years after their debut on Saturday morning TV in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, the four teen sleuths of Mystery Inc. and their talking Great Dane sidekick return for another action-packed crime-busting mission. Scoob!, newly refreshed with computer animation, reboots the venerable property by expanding its cinematic universe, uniting a variety of cartoon characters from the extensive Hanna-Barbera library, now owned by Warner Bros.
The studio’s decision to shift the movie’s release from pandemic-shuttered theaters to premium video-on-demand may partly represent a strategy to capitalize on homebound audiences’ desire for new content with a familiar franchise. Whatever the calculus, Scoob! will offer an appealing distraction for families still stuck at home (although some of the most intense scenes may be too loud and scary for younger kids), even as it poses another test for the resiliency of theatrical windows.
Delivers the goods.
After countless cartoon episodes, nearly three dozen direct-to-DVD features and two live-action movies, details surrounding the origins of the friendship between laidback slacker Norville “Shaggy” Rogers (Will Forte) and his canine best friend Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker) may have become a bit muddled. So the latest reboot offers a brief recap, flashing back as stray puppy Scooby barely escapes a brush with the law after stealing food from a Greek cafe on the Venice boardwalk.
Luckily he finds another junior gourmand in young Shaggy, sparking a lifelong friendship based in no small part on their bottomless appetites. A Halloween encounter later that evening with Fred (Zac Efron), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried) and Velma (Gina Rodriguez) introduces the newly bonded friends to the thrills of sleuthing after they discover a supposedly haunted house that’s just a front for a neighborhood thief (director Tony Cervone in a brief cameo). Their initial success spurs the kids to establish Mystery Inc. and soon they’ve launched their careers as expert amateur detectives.
The succinct opening scenes represent something of a throwback to the familiar narrative templates of the early Hanna-Barbera Scooby-Doo cartoons, which often cast the kids as paranormal investigators, following their unlikely exploits debunking a variety of supernatural hoaxes perpetrated by petty criminals. Much of the comedy was situational, arising from these often tense circumstances, as well as the team’s specific personality traits: Shaggy and Scooby’s reliably cowardly response to any perceived threat, Daphne’s danger-prone missteps or Velma’s overly intellectual analysis of their adversaries. In later episodes however, the storylines focused increasingly on higher stakes and more threatening villains, heavily relying on verbal rather than physical humor to drive the plot.
Scoob! fits this latter pattern, which quickly becomes evident as the members of Mystery Inc. gather to consider going pro after nearly 10 years of sleuthing. Fortunately the ever-resourceful Velma has identified a potential investor: entrepreneur Simon Cowell (playing his usual snarky self). Seems Simon has a high opinion of the group’s talents, with the exception of Shaggy and Scooby, whom he insists on cutting out of the deal, forcing them to part ways with their longtime partners.
It’s not long though before they’re picked up by another crime-fighting outfit when their longtime idol the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) beams them aboard his awesome airship, barely saving them from a swarming hoard of evil scorpion robots. The dangerous drones are in the service of archvillain Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), explain Falcon Fury pilot Dee Dee (Kiersey Clemons) and cybernetic hound Dynomutt (Ken Jeong), who also reveal that their superhero leader is actually Brian, the under-motivated son of the original Blue Falcon, now retired.
The crew eagerly recruits Shaggy and Scooby to assist them on a mission to prevent Dastardly from resurrecting the spirit of Cerberus, the three-headed hound guarding the underworld, and recovering the legendary lost treasure hoard of Alexander the Great.
Deftly melding the movie’s origin story with a typically action-oriented adventure, the Scoob! writing team predictably packs the feature with a surfeit of incident. What little downtime remains gets devoted to character conflict that strives for humor, but sometimes just seems mean-spirited, particularly at the expense of Shaggy, Fred and the Blue Falcon.
The dynamics among the Mystery Inc. team members remain fairly intact however, with the female roles in particular registering more clearly and confidently than in past iterations. In part that’s due to more dimensional scripting, as well as on-point performances from the voice cast, with Rodriguez rocking Velma’s unapologetic geek streak and Seyfried embodying a smoothly cool Daphne.
As a result, the guys end up looking a little lame by comparison, particularly considering Efron’s fairly generic rendition of Fred. Although Forte hews closely to the classic characterization of Shaggy, even down to his squeaky vocalization, there’s a certain manic energy missing from the performance. As the only castmember returning from previous installments, Welker definitely delivers by effortlessly evoking the trusting loyalty of Scooby-Doo, even if his sometimes garbled enunciation can be difficult to follow.
Warner Bros. vet Cervone, building on two previous Scooby-Doo directing credits, has the action well in hand, evincing particular skill with several complex set pieces, most impressively while staging the climactic scene at Athens’ historic Acropolis. The filmmakers’ choice of computerized animation style, emphasizing bold colors and high contrast, looks great for props and backgrounds, but tends to leave character features lacking in detail.
The closing credit sequence confidently tips a sequel and the eventual integration of other classic Hanna-Barbera characters, including Magilla Gorilla and great white shark Jabberjaw. Clearly, the fun has just begun.
Production company: Warner Animation Group
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures (available Friday on-demand)
Cast: Will Forte, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Isaacs, Gina Rodriguez, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Frank Welker, Tracy Morgan, Kiersey Clemons, Ken Jeong, Simon Cowell, Henry Winkler
Director: Tony Cervone
Screenwriters: Adam Sztykiel, Jack C. Donaldson, Matt Lieberman, Derek Elliott
Producers: Pam Coats, Allison Abbate
Executive producers: Adam Sztykiel, Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Jesse Ehrman, Dan Povenmire, Chris Columbus
Production designer: Michael Kurinsky
Editors: Ryan Folsey, Vanara Taing
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Casting director: Ruth Lambert
Rated PG, 93 minutes