The best part of Scoob!, a computer-animated reboot of the Scooby-Doo franchise, is the part in which the movie painstakingly recreates the opening credits of the original series. A Best Coast cover of the theme song plays as Fred (voiced by Zac Efron), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried), Velma (Gina Rodriguez), Shaggy (Will Forte), and Scooby (Frank Welker, the original Fred) march intrepidly toward mystery in one shot, and scramble away from it in the opposite direction in another. There’s a distinctive quality to that shabby ’60s Saturday morning television animation — especially the patched-together montages of giggles, gasps, and glowing skulls — that’s unaccountably charming when redone with all the detail that standard-issue 2020 technology is capable of. It feels akin to seeing people restage faded childhood photos as adults — only in this case, it’s the medium that’s matured, if not always improved.
The worst part of Scoob! has to be the moment, not long after, when Fred, Daphne, and Velma are searching for Scooby and Shaggy, who’ve gone missing. They sidle up to someone who saw what happened, and who offers for Shaggy the fourth-wall-breaking descriptor of a “gangly dude that had this habit of using the word ‘like’ at the start of every sentence, almost as if he was some middle-aged man’s idea of how a teenage hippie talks.” It’s not the winky jab at the source material that irks, it’s the implication that Scoob! is doing anything remotely better. It’s a movie directed by Tony Cervone and written by Matt Lieberman, Adam Sztykiel, Jack Donaldson, and Derek Elliott, a team that itself does not appear to be lacking in middle-aged men. It’s an origin story that kicks off with the gang as kids, and includes the following exchange between a young Shaggy and a young Velma about the latter’s Halloween costume:
SHAGGY: Are you Harry Potter?
VELMA: I’m Ruth Bader Ginsburg, obviously.
SHAGGY: Which house is she in? Hufflepuff?
VELMA: She’s a Supreme Court justice.
SHAGGY: Oh, Slytherin.
Those lines resemble the dialogue of two young people far less than they do a collection of sentences scraped from Twitter by a bot. That capper is not quite a joke, but it’s an obvious-enough appeal to the adults in the room to get a maybe-chuckle of recognition anyway. Scoob! is the kind of kiddie movie that does that a lot, dropping in references with the expectation that any grown-ups watching alongside the intended audience are suffering and need to be thrown an occasional bone. And so, when the Mark Wahlberg–voiced successor to the superhero Blue Falcon is introduced, it’s as the previous Blue Falcon’s “large adult son.” When Dynomutt (Ken Jeong), his cyborg canine sidekick, gets hacked, the character yelps, “Stay out of my search history!” “The last time you listened to someone on the internet, you thought Tinder was an app that delivers firewood,” Dynomutt later scolds his reluctant partner.
This is serious soul-death stuff, but there are larger corporate ambitions afoot here. Blue Falcon and Dynomutt are both existing characters from the Hanna-Barbera stable, as is Dee Dee Sykes (Kiersey Clemons), their hyper-competent colleague. Another, the hirsute Captain Caveman (Tracy Morgan), gets a truly haunting cameo that offers a lot to think about with regard to how a walking hairball looks when given 3-D textures. Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), meanwhile, gets turned into a supervillain whose sorrow over his own missing henchdog, Muttley (Billy West), gives his evil scheme an Orphic quality. Scoob! is the start of what’s intended to be a cinematic universe, and for whatever it’s worth, it’s really no better or worse than other selections from the genre it’s part of — that slice of fast-paced, brightly colored kids movie that makes no pretense of being anything other than an adequate distraction for young attention spans.
It’s not as though the original Scooby-Doo show was sacred ground of any sort, a series about a group of teenagers and a talking dog that was created to be like something like Archie and something like Dobie Gillis, only with mysteries to solve. But watching something like Scoob!, the latest in a long stretch of animated and live-action entries in this franchise, you can start to wonder what, exactly, the essence of a property like this even is, and what the core of its appeal to new generations is judged to be over so many calculated revamps and revisitations. Is it the group of friends? They’re just a collection of bluntly defined types, after all, easily re-skinned into more contemporary ones like the dumb himbo and the STEM girl. Is it the groovy van and the occasional stoner subtext? One gets called “anachronistic” by a character and given a high-tech remodel, while the other is entirely gone, replaced by internet jokes.
Is it the supernatural mysteries and their inevitable real explanations? That’s been all but discarded in this go-round, which foregrounds an awful lot of superheroics and involves a plot to open the gates to the underworld. Or is it just Scooby himself, a character who’s apparently beloved enough to have merited being the center of what’s now been a half-century of material? While he keeps his signature speech impediment, he’s more verbose and comprehensible in this incarnation, and is also possibly now some kind of prophesied doggy-chosen-one. He’s quintupled the lifespan of an actual Great Dane, and he’ll almost certainly outlive most of us, getting mulched and recycled and rising again long after the people who created him — Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, both in their 80s now — are gone. It’s why, maybe, that restaging of the old opening credits feels like such a brain worm of a sequence, the kind of thing you rewind and rewatch again as soon as it’s over. It’s an acknowledgement that this bit of cultural detritus seems destined to have infinite lives, mangled into whatever it is kids are thought to like in the moment, a million masks to be ripped off and no real face ever reached underneath.
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