You have to give Warner Bros. points for bravery. First it took "Harry Potter," one of the most popular kids' book series in the world, and dared to give it a definitive look, hoping it would live up to the expectations of millions of readers. Now it's taking a cartoon character that has been known and loved by three generations of kids and putting him into live action ... sort of.
The big-screen, big-budget ($80 million-plus) "Scooby-Doo," which opens June 14, renders the cowardly, lovable ghostbusting Great Dane in quasi-realistic computer animation in a live-action setting. Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini and Matthew Lillard play Scooby's human pals: stalwart Fred Jones, beautiful Daphne Blake, brainy Velma Dinkley and grungy Shaggy Rogers, respectively. Although the formula of digital cartooning with live action has been used before for 1995's "Casper," which was a commercial hit, and 2000's "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," which wasn't, the studio contends that comparisons with other films are irrelevant.
Why? Because there's just something about Scooby.
"Everybody grew up with Scooby-Doo," says Charles Roven, who produced the film with partner Richard Suckle. "I grew up with Scooby-Doo. My daughter, who is 15, grew up with Scooby-Doo, and I know a lot of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who grew up with Scooby-Doo."
For the benefit of those who might have managed to grow up without him, Scooby debuted in 1969 in the Saturday-morning series "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!," which was created and produced by Hanna-Barbera. Each week, Scooby and the gang--known collectively as Mystery Inc.--traveled around in a flower-power van dubbed the Mystery Machine. They followed clues, solved cases, chased ghosts and monsters, and invariably revealed them to be disguised human criminals who would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids.
Over the next three decades, Scooby was featured in a record 18 spinoff series (including one that paired the gang with guest stars such as Sonny & Cher and the Harlem Globetrotters), four TV movies and three video features, making him among the most durable cartoon characters.
Roven became interested in developing a live-action treatment of Scooby in 1994, four years before Time Warner acquired Turner, which owned Hanna-Barbera, and identified Scooby as one of the animation company's most marketable characters. Mike Myers was briefly attached to the project, hoping to play Scooby's best bud, Shaggy. By decade's end, the combination of Scooby's popularity on the Cartoon Network, by then a Time Warner company; the delivery of an acceptable script; and technological advancements that for the first time made a digitally animated Scooby viable, put the project on the fast track. Filming began in February 2001 at Warner Roadshow Studios in Queensland, Australia.
The PG-rated film is aimed at every generation of Scooby-watchers, including those who weren't even born when its development began. "Our primary audience are kids 6 to 12 and their parents," says Dawn Taubin, president of domestic marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures, "but all of our information shows us that there is a large group of [teens] and even college students who have a strong affection for Scooby."
Adds Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide production: "Unlike a lot of Saturday-morning television, I think 'Scooby' has a hipper, cooler vibe to it. Hanna-Barbera instilled it with something that everybody up through high school enjoys." The filmmakers were eager to run with that vibe, tweaking the characters for a more sophisticated kid audience than the one of 30 years ago. "The [original] series painted very specific characteristics onto each character, but it did not get behind their struggle to either overcome or accentuate those," Di Bonaventura says. "We get behind them either to make fun of them, accentuate them or get emotionally involved in them."
Scripted by James Gunn and directed by Raja Gosnell, "Scooby-Doo" finds the gang investigating weird goings-on at Spooky Island, a tropical spring break hangout for teens run by a man named Mondavarious (played by Rowan Atkinson of "Mr. Bean" fame). To anyone familiar with "Scooby-Doo," the story line sounds like deja vu all over again. But there is a twist: Long-simmering resentments and personality conflicts, particularly between Fred and Daphne, have torn the group apart (and hipper "Scooby" fans know the joke is that Prinze and Gellar, who play Fred and Daphne, are engaged). Before they can hope to catch the villain, the former friends first have to resolve their conflicts.
While Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy reveal more complex human emotions, Scooby has likewise found his inner dog. "In certain cases, he does exhibit more natural characteristics that a [real] dog might exhibit," Roven says, "but whatever Scooby does, we wanted to make sure he did it with his Scooby-ness."
All of the 375 or so shots of Scooby, as well as a few incidental creature characters, were created digitally by the L.A. digital effects shop Rhythm & Hues. No animatronic elements were used. Effectively transposing the character from a two-dimensional cartoon to something that would fit inside a real-world setting was anything but easy, according to visual effects supervisor Peter Crosman.
"In terms of the computer-generated imaging, getting the final look that everyone will come to believe in was nothing short of rocket science," he says. "We debated quite a long time during production to visualize a comfortable hybrid between the characteristics of a real Great Dane and Scooby-Doo, the cartoon behemoth that is completely his own entity." The final result is a Scooby that closely resembles his ink-and-paint self, but with realistic weight and texturing.
The animators immersed themselves in tapes of the original 1969-70 series, which Crosman says revealed the character information and charm they were looking for, as well as the more recent video features, "Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island," "Scooby-Doo and the Witch's Ghost" and "Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase," which spun the characters into more modern treatments of action and horror, and toyed with the self-spoofing quality that the filmmakers adopted.
The movie "is really more fun for somebody who knows the old series and understands the joke of matching these people to the real world than for somebody who's completely brand new to it," Crosman says--raising the possibility that there is someone under a year old who could be brand new to Scooby-Doo.
"Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!" was initially created as the antidote to the kind of action that today is all but required to attract an audience. Saturday-morning adventure cartoons were starting to come under fire in the late 1960s from watchdog groups. Fred Silverman, then head of children's programming for CBS, responded by asking Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, at that time the kings of TV animation, to do a mystery series featuring teenagers, something along the lines of the old "I Love a Mystery" radio show.
"The first thing I did was 'House of Mystery,' which was too bland," Barbera recalls. "We went back and forth on the pitches, and sometimes they'd say, 'Oh, you're getting too scary here.'" Everything fell into place when the core group of teens expanded to include a dog. "The talking dog was what made it a hit," Barbera continues. "The kids all picked up that voice: 'Scooby-dooby-doooo!'"
(Incidentally, the original cartoonists refuted persistent rumors that they deliberately intended the perpetually hungry Shaggy and Scooby to be taken as a couple of stoners, as well as the bizarre urban legend from the Boston area that Fred, Velma, Daphne and Shaggy were purposely designed to represent a stereotypical student from each of four local universities. It does, however, illustrate how much viewers have identified with these characters and taken them to heart.)
For his part, Barbera is gratified by Scooby's longevity. "It's been many, many years and the characters are still here," he says. None of the company's other 1969 offerings have proved as durable. A sampling: "The Perils of Penelope Pitstop," "Motormouth and Autocat," "Dastardly and Muttly," "Around the World in 80 Days."
Australian actor Neil Fanning, who spent days on the set feeding off-camera lines to the cast, provided the final dialogue track for Scooby-Doo, re-creating the consonant-challenged voice originally provided by the late Don Messick. One would expect a sound-alike Scooby in the feature film, but what is surprising is how closely Prinze and Lillard duplicate the vocal patterns of their forebears, voice actors Frank Welker and Casey Kasem.
Roven says the link to tradition was deliberate. "We wanted to make sure it was very easy for 'Scooby' fans to flow right into the movie, so when you first meet the characters, they look, sound and are dressed like the characters you remember from the cartoon."
While it seems reasonable to assume that "Scooby-Doo" is likely to spawn a litter of live-action sequels, Di Bonaventura says any discussion of a franchise is premature. "I always chuckle a little bit when people talk about launching a franchise, because it doesn't work that way," he says.
For example, "Godzilla" offers a glaring illustration of what can happen when studios attempt to force-feed audiences a franchise.
"In the case of Scooby, both the filmmakers and the studio really loved what we were doing," Di Bonaventura says. "It was not, 'How do we create a franchise?' The point of view was, 'We love Scooby, wouldn't it be fun to make a Scooby movie?'"
In a summer packed with family films, including DreamWorks' "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," Disney's "Lilo & Stitch," Sony's "Stuart Little 2" and Warner Bros.' "The Powerpuff Girls," Scooby still has to find his legs--two or four--at the box office.
Buoyed by what it calls positive response to test screenings, however, Warner Bros. is confident it has a top dog. "We bring a vast and loyal audience base to the table," Di Bonaventura says, "and I think that gives us a great leg up over some of the big movies that are coming."
Only in Hollywood could a Great Dane with a leg up be perceived as good news.
Michael Mallory is a regular contributor to Calendar.