Cartoon Graveyard: Live Action Loophole Edition

September 17, 2009


Stop me if you’ve heard this one:  a group of four teenagers, united by their mutual affection for something that shouldn’t talk but does, find themselves menaced by a monster of some sort. Fearful but undaunted, they set out to uncover the truth behind the marauder, only to discover after a series of misadventures that he/she/it was really some guy in a costume all along. Order is restored, all laugh, and the thing that shouldn’t talk mumbles a garbled catchphrase. It’s a formula developed long ago by the great hack factory that was Hanna-Barbera, and it’s what they’ve been coasting on ever since. God only knows how a television show called “Scooby-Doo” ever got greenlit, though my own theory is that in the ‘70s everything got greenlit. But somehow those goddamned kids and their dog have remained on our TV screens in some form or another for over three decades now. The latest coming of the Doo? A live-action prequel.

A prequel.

Title: Scooby-Doo: The Mystery Begins

Network: Cartoon Network

Premise: Ever wondered how Scooby and the gang met? You didn’t? Uh oh.

Before discussing the gory details, let’s step back a bit and review the career of America’s most celebrated ambiguous talking canine. Born in the ‘70s during Hanna-Barbera’s stranglehold on American cartooning, the formulaic mystery/slapstick style that Scooby-Doo pioneered for some reason struck a chord with children. This is because, as mentioned before, children are idiots. HB being who they were, the formula was quickly repeated again and again and again, leading to scenarios like Scooby and Co. coming face-to-face with their own imitators.

But as the show wore on, the formula got more and more strained. Really, there’s only so many scary mansions at which one’s car can break down. So the inevitable onslaught of shark-jumpery began. Celebrity guests every week. Relaunches of the show with only Scooby and Shaggy, or just them and Daphne, or some such thing. A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. And we can’t forget Scrappy-Doo, much as we might like to. So the franchise gradually petered out, popping up from time to time with quickie movies where Shaggy becomes a werewolf or they all meet ghost knock-offs of the Three Stooges. Oddly enough, these movies actually represented a step forward for the franchise, in that they could drop the classic-yet-instantly-stale formula of the series. The logical endpoint of all this was 1998’s Scooby-Doo On Zombie Island. The selling point: Scooby-Doo meets real zombies. Not the George Romero kind, mind you, the voodoo kind. But still, there can be no greater moment in the Scooby canon than when one of the kids attempts to pull the mask off a captured zombie, only to have the whole head come off in their hands.

World's greatest sight gag in 3... 2... 1...

World's greatest sight gag in 3... 2... 1...

I like to think of that scene as the punch line to the world’s longest set-up. Scooby-Doo had reached its apex, and now was the time let the show die. Would Hanna-Barbera have the sense to let their cash cow go gentle into that good night? Hmm, let’s ask Rapping Top Cat.

Oh. Guess not. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we find ourselves where we are today: a revival of the series only recently cancelled, two lame live-action movies in the can, merchandise still cluttering up shelves, and a friggin’ prequel I’ve managed to get through half the post without actually addressing.

Scooby-Doo: The Mystery Begins um, begins with a scene essentially ripped off from Spider-Man, with a gangly teenager comically failing to catch the bus on time. He looks for a seat, only to be rebuffed by classmates and tripped by an obese bully. But Spider-Man this ain’t, and gangly teen Norville Rogers, aka Shaggy, gains neither superpowers nor an interesting backstory, but instead a huge CGI dog that jumps through his basement window in terror later that day. Here we run into one of the film’s major flaws: one of the only conceivable reasons for dramatizing the meeting of Scooby-Doo and his friends is how they came to accept the fundamental absurdity of the existence of a huge talking dog. Yet Shaggy and everyone else takes it completely in stride. Then again, these are kids who are perennially convinced that a guy in a cheesy mask is a ghost, so I guess accepting a talking dog isn’t that much of a stretch.

So apparently Fred's a brunette football player now.

So apparently Fred's a brunette football player now.

Soon enough the pair is engaged in one of their trademark comic misadventures, which results in their sharing detention with three hilariously mismatched other kids, then ghosts attack, and yeah you can see where this is going. It turns into just another typical Scooby-Doo episode, albeit with two of the three ghosts being real. We see the familiar beats (Scooby Snacks, the van, a painfully obvious solution that nevertheless manages to find a plot hole), but each one is clearly led up to in a “first appearance of blank” kind of way. The movie not only embraces all its source material’s clichés, but those of just about every kiddie movie these days.  A stuffy authority figure gets his windshield broken and yells, “My new car!” The hot girl gives the nerdy girl a makeover into an instant bombshell. In the end everyone gets applauded and talks about the power of friendship. Every adult in sight overacts like a mofo. You get the idea.

So my inclination was to write this off as just another lightweight Scooby-Doo tossoff that kids might like and no one else needs to care about, until a thought struck me. Scooby-Doo himself is supposed to be the draw, right? The rest of the cast are stock characters except for Shaggy, and he and Scooby-Doo are the same character anyway, just with one version more articulate than the other. Yet in this movie Scooby-Doo doesn’t do shit. He has an actual role in exactly two elements of the plot: he finds the cemetery where the ghosts came from, and he heroically saves the gang from the bad guy’s trap at the end. That’s it. I’m no big Scooby-Doo fan, but you’ve got Frank Welker on board, the guy who’s been voicing Scooby and Fred since the beginning and has proven himself to be one of the few people on Earth capable of saying “past nastification” with immense dignity. You might give the guy something to do.

Final Judgment: Something something meddling kids. Damn, even that joke’s not funny anymore. But hey, if you want to see Scooby-Doo farting, look no further.


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