Dir: Tony Cervone. Starring: Will Forte, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Gina Rodriguez, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Isaacs. PG cert, 89 mins.
Big-screen adaptations are too often stifled by their reverence for the source material. The opposite is true of SCOOB!, a computer-animated Scooby-Doo reboot that shows an odd contempt for the 50-year-old franchise. Its screenplay is keen to distance itself from the formulaic yet pleasurable adventures of Mystery Inc – a team of amateur sleuths who drive around in a puke-green camper van and discover that every ghost is just a grump in a mask, attempting to cover up some white-collar crimes.
At one point, a disgruntled bowling alley employee describes Shaggy as “a middle-aged man’s idea of how a teenage hippy talks”. The character’s famous speech pattern – heavily punctuated with the words “like”, “man”, and “zoinks” – is still intact, but gone is any hint of his stoner credentials. All those cravings for “Scooby snacks” have magically subsided. Fred (voiced by Zac Efron), the ascot-wearing, de facto leader of the group, gets dismissed as a “poor man’s Hemsworth”. Who knows whether that’s meant to be Chris or Liam. And the show’s most famous line, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids”? It’s cut off before the end, as if we’re all meant to be tired of hearing it.
SCOOB! believes that these old cartoons are in need of a full facelift. They must become bright, buzzy, modern – a fine distraction for younger audiences, especially now that the film’s planned cinematic release has turned into a digital one. But here that involves ignoring almost all the core ingredients of the original show (haunted house, secret passages, an extended chase sequence), in favour of creating an extended cinematic universe of Hanna-Barbera characters.
Shaggy (Will Forte) and Scooby (Frank Welker, the character’s official voice since 2002) are abducted by the superhero Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his sidekicks, robotic pup Dynomutt (Ken Jeong) and Dee Dee Skyes (Kiersey Clemons) All three are borrowed from various, now half-forgotten animated shows. They reveal that Scooby is under threat from Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), of Wacky Races fame, all because – drumroll – he’s actually the last living descendant of Alexander the Great’s favourite dog, Peritas, and is the key to unlocking a treasure stored behind the gates of the Underworld. Dastardly, at some point, acquired an army of cutesy robots to do his bidding.
To add to the confusion, the film’s cultural references were seemingly collected through a process of repeatedly hitting the “random article” button on Wikipedia. Simon Cowell and This American Life presenter Ira Glass cameo, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anonymous, IKEA, Gerard Depardieu, and “Shallow” from 2018’s A Star is Born all get a mention. The phrase “mewling millennials” pops up, too. For a modern reboot, SCOOB! feels instantly dated. And its only contribution to the Scooby-Doo mythos is a thuddingly lame backstory to how he got his name.
Granted, the emotional foundations here are strong enough to stop the film spiralling out of control, as Shaggy and Scooby come to embrace the unshakeable bond between man and dog. And the film’s A-list cast – which also includes Amanda Seyfried and Gina Rodriguez as Daphne and Velma, respectively – manage to keep the energy up throughout. It’s just a shame that the most refreshing thing about SCOOB! is how well the live-action films of the early Noughties come off in comparison.