Scoob! was already going to be an interesting prospect. Passed down over multiple generations, Scooby-Doo has grown and reshaped itself many times. It has carved out a niche in the home video market that few shows ever capture, in quantity and certainly in quality. The series has proved amorphous, fitting any number of other franchises, working within any universe and context. It’s been developed every which way for video, but apart from a couple live action efforts (that came and went with mixed success), has never been party to a truly successful theatrical release. The news now is that it still won’t be. Instead, the king of children’s home video returns to its home turf, now stuffed with promotions for varied Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera properties, high production values, and a more common, modern visual style.
The good thing about animation is that the work does not have to stop with the virus. Final touch-ups on Scoob! could be completed from the comforts of its artists’ homes. It proves that animation may become our defining genre of the moment if enough studios can quickly develop teams to work those projects. For WB, they’ve been working toward industry respect and proper placement. Their work on the LEGO movies showed seriousness and care for the form. After two great entries and a couple stumbling acts, they have passed that franchise onto Universal. Scoob! builds on what they were already accomplishing there, combining age-old franchises with the studio’s most storied brands, but recentralizing their concept, so all of the content is owned in house.
Jinkies, what a mess they have made for the movie. There are two basic kinds of Scooby-Doo stories: ones involving the whole Mystery Incorporated gang, and in the other kind, Shaggy and Scooby having their own adventures. The film is the latter and generally this camp does not work in the movies’ favor — with the exception of Ghoul School (1988), where great new characters and themes elevate the material — and then, the film is even brazen enough to separate Shaggy and Scooby. They lean heavily into the strength of old-school Hanna-Barbara characters and it never moves the needle beyond the initial pleasure of recognition. Those characters largely lead to a kind of content bloat that has become so familiar with modern animation. No sooner than Scoob! establishes a welcome new vision of Velma and Daphne, dressing them as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Wonder Woman for Halloween, they depart from the story and do not make much further impact. It suggests, these are real characters with progressive, meaningful worldly concerns, and then removes their agency and placement in the story, in exchange for randomly inserted fan service.
The story is that the crew has brought on a new manager for their business, reality television’s Simon Cowell. Because Scooby-Doo contains multitudes and can include any universe, the addition is permissible and somewhat funny. He says, well, friendship isn’t always enough, and judges Shaggy and Scooby’s rendition of A Star is Born (2018)’s “Shallow” very harshly. Further examples of corporate placement make about as much sense. The boys are captured by Dick Dastardly, of Wacky Races (1968) fame and Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines (1969) obscurity. He’s well-considered here and Jason Isaacs gets to have some good fun in his voicing. This is also a secret Blue Falcon movie, with Mark Wahlberg doing an OK job, but it’s not what we want. What then is Tracy Morgan doing as Captain Caveman? Kiersey Clemons as Dee Dee Skyes? Ken Jeong as Dynomutt? It is not their fault, there are more throughlines than Scooby can support. The series can, of course, hold anything, but a constant blur of corporate decisions washes over us and does not leave any whole impact. It seems that is their plan, too, for the new Space Jam.
Most of Scoob!‘s success is early-on. It reinvents the origin story for the most famous Great Dane. The new story is not that crew found him at a pet store. Scooby is homeless and running free around the beaches of Venice, California. Shaggy is a despondent young man. He has just grabbed a sub, and on the way to the beach, can’t seem to find a playlist or visual that does not remind him of his staggering loneliness. Even his favorite podcast, delightfully voiced by an actual Ira Glass, is a meditation on being alone, and the need for companionship. Shaggy takes his sub and sets down in front of a couple mounds of sand on the beach. One contains Scooby-Doo, who’s just conducted a heist of the local meat shop. And Shaggy has no meats. It’s friendship at first sight. Really lovely, signature moment, about companionship and what the show has always been about, combining what we have, to solve the unsolvable.
When they are apprehended by a cop (Adam Sztykiel) for the stolen meats, it’s the movie’s best moment of comedy. He asks for the dog’s name and Shaggy finds it off a box of snacks, “Scooby… Dooby… Doo,” and the cop says any dog with a middle name is free to go. Will Forte’s Shaggy makes a nice companion for Frank Welker’s Scooby (as good as always, gets more to say here.) Once the crew finds each other and go trick-or-treating, there’s even a nice in-movie rendition of the classic song. It seems like it is going to be the right kind of movie early on: touching, funny, nostalgic. Then the more it divides the crew, the more it loses its way.
The film wants to make a big theater audience happy. It inserts references at every corner. It does not make a lot of sense at home. Nobody would make a movie like this, only for the home market, when the original art style would do. We may find that this entry proves that they might from here. Going by the success of Trolls and the imminent Corona-guaranteed success of this film, we’re about to see a flourishing home market starved for children’s entertainment and a crippled industry with only one style of film that can convincingly be made from home. We might be on the verge of a real renaissance. Scoob! just isn’t quite it. The director has worked on some of the home releases before — notably Scooby-Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery (2015), so he knows how to blend ’em — but after company mandates and some flimsy action set pieces, there isn’t a lot of room to tell a genuine story. It may be the start of a new value proposition, asking for first-run prices to rent, and only a little more to own, possibly making a great play for parents. It may not be the definitive Scooby-Doo statement for home viewing (there are dozens in contention for that title), but when the movie ended, my daughter asked to restart it. When it ended the second time, she asked to restart it again, but we had felt enough of the branding for a day. If we walked out of the theater, that would have been the end of the conversation for three months.