Review: ‘Scoob!’ might have been better if it weren’t for you meddling kids
It pains me to report that, despite the exclamation point at the end of its title, the new animated feature “Scoob!” is not a musical.
Not entirely, anyway, although it does have its share of hummable highlights. The ever-durable “Scooby-Doo” theme song plays over a montage of familiar high jinks and freakouts, although here the cartoon detective series’ flat, hand-drawn style has been duly upgraded with slick, computer-generated visuals. The soundtrack includes brief blasts of Bobby Vinton, Three Dog Night and the Backstreet Boys — little nuggets of pop-cultural memory that, in this case, help illuminate the contours of Shaggy’s unusually complicated inner life.
Shaggy, you see, was once a sad, lonely, Scooby-less kid, and “Scoob!,” in keeping with Hollywood franchise-reboot imperatives, doubles as both an update and an origin story: When we first meet Shaggy, he is trudging the sunny streets of Venice Beach, toting a couple of disgusting sandwiches but conspicuously lacking a friend to share them with. Until, that is, he runs into Scooby-Doo, the clumsy but lovable Great Dane whose insatiable appetite rivals Shaggy’s, as evidenced by the enormous spit-roasted log of meat he’s just stolen from a Greek rotisserie.
As thefts go, Scooby’s is more than forgivable. (Anyone who has ever been tempted to try something similar — to enjoy not just a few measly shavings of gyro but the whole damn crispy-charred slab — might feel less judgment than envy.) It forges an unbreakable bond between Scooby and Shaggy, who soon after join forces with Fred, Daphne and Velma and begin unmasking crooks in paranormal drag. There’s a bit of a novel twist in that: Your favorite crime-solving pooch began his career as a petty crook.
But novelty is in otherwise short supply in “Scoob!,” which devotes roughly an hour-and-a-half to the careful repetition and sometimes tortured elaboration of a tried-and-true formula. This is not entirely a bad or inappropriate thing, since the original series itself was nothing if not formulaic. You could set your watch by the beats of a single episode: the team’s investigation of some suspicious activity; the frantic chases and goofy pratfalls and bouts of compulsive overeating; “And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids” and all the rest. The utter predictability was the show’s limitation, but also the source of its not-inconsiderable pleasure.
“Scoob!,” directed by the Warner Bros. Animation veteran Tony Cervone, sets out to reproduce some of that pleasure for longtime Scooby-Doo-votees while upgrading it for a new generation of younger viewers. Originally scheduled for theatrical release this week, a plan that was scrapped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it arrives now on VOD streaming platforms to provide a few boos, a few wink-wink chuckles and maybe one or two authentic laughs.
And to some extent — owing, perhaps, to lowered expectations and a dispiriting lack of competition — it succeeds. Unlike the earlier live-action features “Scooby-Doo” (2002) and “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” (2004), “Scoob!” places its state-of-the-art visual engine in service of an old-school cartoonishness. Scooby himself, despite his spiffy digital makeover, looks pleasingly close to his Saturday-morning counterpart. He sounds a lot like him too, thanks to the expertly high-pitched line readings — or perhaps I should say “rine readings” — of the actor Frank Welker, a fixture of the franchise since the original series.
Will Forte doesn’t fare quite as well as Shaggy, at least if pitch-perfect re-creation is, like, your standard. But the actor does a fine job of capturing the character’s sweet, affable foolishness — and, as the plot thickens, his jealousy. To everyone’s surprise, Scooby turns out to be the linchpin in a scheme — hatched by a mustachioed supervillain named Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs) — that somehow pivots on ancient dogs of sometimes mythic renown, from the three-headed Cerberus to Alexander the Great’s hunting dog Peritas.
A canine lineage that impressive is bound to give any pup a slightly swollen head, which threatens to drive a serious wedge between Scooby and the comparatively insignificant Shaggy. Their drama can’t help but somewhat marginalize the adventures of Fred (Zac Efron), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried) and Velma (Gina Rodriguez), and the performers are content to stay within the parameters of characters we know well: the leader, the charmer and the brains of the outfit, respectively.
That familiarity, again, isn’t the problem. What undermines “Scoob!” is not the comfort of the old but the pressures of the new, the need to sound hip, self-referential and up-to-the-minute at all times. To that end, the characters have been forced to crack wise and make antic comic references to Harry Potter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born,” Chris Hemsworth, Netflix, toxic masculinity, Judge Judy and Simon Cowell — who naturally turns up in the movie, playing a smugly superior animated version of himself.
If all the banter and in-jokes don’t overwhelm you, then Dick Dastardly’s army of shapeshifting scorpion robots might do the trick. Or perhaps the spacecraft carrying a dunderheaded do-gooder named Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his superior canine sidekick, Dynomutt (Ken Jeong), who may jog the memories of longtime Hanna-Barbera fans. Hijacking the narrative here for tedious stretches, they’re meant to serve as comic-book counterparts to Scooby and Shaggy, of course, but what they really serve is something altogether more depressing and commonplace. “Scoob!” was never going to be a great musical, but did it have to turn out to be just another superhero movie?
Rating: PG, for some action, language and rude/suggestive humor
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Available May 15 for streaming on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and other platforms
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