As smoke rolls out of the sunroof of the Mystery Mobile and the words "primo stuff" are uttered by a major character, finally, we're led to think, someone is coming clean about Scooby-Doo's psychedelic roots.
It would explain a lot, from Shaggy's reefer-smoking demeanor to the talking dog. Of course, no explanations are offered, only flirted with, as the next shot reveals an in-van barbecue of vegetarian burgers shared by a boy and his dog.
Usually, calling movies "cartoonish" is an insult. For "Scooby-Doo" it's a compliment, as director Raja Gosnell offers a live-action film that's true to its animated roots but aims the occasional gag above its kiddie audience's heads.
"Scooby-Doo" coasts on modern camp and sheer nostalgia, gleefully resonating its cartoon counterpart, right down to the slapstick sensibilities and often repetitive cartoon humor.
The film is based on the Hanna-Barbera characters who first hit TV screens in 1969's "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!" Gosnell incorporates the tone and silly structure of the animated series; its crime-fighting characters are fully realized within the first few seconds of the movie. Scooby, of course, gets the digital treatment, looking slightly more Great Dane-ish than his cartoon self.
When Mystery Inc.'s unofficial leader, Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), once again takes credit for another scary hoax unraveled by his team, brainy Velma (Linda Cardellini) unceremoniously quits, and the perpetually in-peril Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) follows suit. This leaves only pals Scooby (voiced by Neil Fanning) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) to find their way in life with the Mystery Mobile.
Flash-forward two years, and the splintered teammates find themselves individually invited to spring break getaway Spooky Island, where owner Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson) enlists their talents to investigate some strange happenings. Guests enter the resort as wild, boozing college kids and leave as straight-postured "Village of the Damned"-type zombies.
Light entertainment? Yes, and it should be. "Scooby-Doo" cartoon reruns on Cartoon Network and new straight-to-video movies have been gathering new, younger fans - children who might be attracted by the film's PG rating but initially scared by some digital monsters that resemble emaciated demon rabbits.
Some considerations were made for a modern audience. Slapstick jokes are updated with a batch of shameless flatulence humor, while Gellar's Daphne shines more sensual and sassy. Velma is also allowed some sexy geek-girl appeal. As Shaggy, Lillard is simply unnerving, channeling the cartoon Shaggy (once voiced by Casey Kasem) with perfect, spine-tingling pitch.
Pop group Sugar Ray also guest stars - a nod to the time when the franchise suffered team-ups with Sonny and Cher or Phyllis Diller. Whereas songstress Macy Gray seemed shoehorned into "Spider-Man," prancing pretty-boy frontman Mark McGrath and company fold effortlessly into the tongue-in-cheek setting of scantily clad, demonically possessed spring breakers.
Not every comic note finds a target, and moderate patches of script fall flat. In trying to update its comic oeuvre, "Scooby-Doo" never quite finds balance between wanting to slip on strategically placed skateboards and making naughty revelations about the sexual tension between Fred and Daphne.
Screenwriter James Gunn gets it mostly right, remaining fiercely faithful to Mystery Inc. mythology, from integrating Scooby's annoying nephew Scrappy-Doo to Velma's penchant for yelling "jinkees!" and fumbling around for her glasses. Scooby even gets called by his formal name: Scoobert. The mystery itself is worthy of the gang, leaving clues and producing twists precisely in the right places.
Unlike the lead-balloon adaptations "Josie and the Pussycats" and Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy," "Scooby-Doo" knows when to take itself seriously and when to laugh at itself - even if its audience isn't laughing along at every gag.
2 1/2 stars
Directed by Raja Gosnell; screenplay by James Gunn; photographed by David Eggby; edited by Kent Beyda; production design by Bill Boes; produced by Charles Roven. A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday, June 14. Running time: 1:27. MPAA rating: PG (some rude humor, language and some scary action).
Fred Jones - Freddie Prinze Jr.
Daphne Blake - Sarah Michelle Gellar
Shaggy Rogers - Matthew Lillard
Velma Dinkley - Linda Cardellini
Voice of Scooby-Doo - Neil Fanning Mondavarious - Rowan Atkinson
Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.