When Warner Bros. twice before brought the old television series "Scooby-Doo" to the big screen using a combination of popular actors, live action, and 3-D CGI animation, the studio appeared to be aiming the films, unsuccessfully, at nostalgic adults. This time out, with 2009's "Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins" (which debuted on TV and DVD) the filmmakers seem to be going after a younger audience, which makes this newer effort an altogether better film. At least we know it's a kids' show, and we can lower our expectations. Not that we need to lower our expectations, though, since the film is really quite good in its own right.
The thrust of this new movie is that it's mostly back story: It returns to the Scooby-Doo gang's beginnings and shows us how the team first met and created the close-knit crime-solving unit that we would come to know as "Mystery, Inc." Moreover, rather than use big-name stars, the new movie makes do with relative unknowns who create a more-pleasing sense of camaraderie than the better-known actors ever did. More important, the new movie goes back to the basics of the cartoon series, back to the simple adventures and warm relationships we found long ago among the main characters. Somehow, all of that got lost in the previous live-action theatrical releases, which seemed to go straight for the throat with forced laughs and exaggerated horseplay. It's nice to have the "real" Scooby-Doo gang back for a change.
The only slightly disconcerting thing about the new back-story business is that the time setting is the present, not the Sixties when the cartoon series began. If you can make that leap of logic, the rest of the movie is pretty easy to swallow. We start in Coolsville, Ohio (pop. 81,000), a "cool place to live," where the four main human characters all go to school but don't know each other, and where nobody wants a big dog named Scooby-Doo on Pet Adoption Day. On the way back from Adoption Day, Scooby falls from the back of a truck, getting lost and left behind. But all is well, because Shaggy finds him (or, rather, Scooby finds Shaggy), and the two outcasts, neither of whom has a best buddy, become fast friends.
The filmmakers animate Scooby as they did before in 3-D graphics, and they integrate him well into the story. Nobody in the movie seems to mind that the dog looks like a cartoon figure, stands about four-feet tall, and must weigh 150 pounds. Or that he talks (voiced by longtime "Scooby-Doo" voice actor Frank Welker, who's been working in the cartoon series since forever, mainly voicing Fred in days past).
Newcomers play the four young human leads, who find their friendship for one another when the Vice Principal of Coolsville High, Mr. Grimes (Gary Chalk), assigns them six weeks of after-school detention together in the school library. (Was it John Hughes who originally decided a school library should double as a jailhouse?) Robbie Amell plays Fred "Freddie" Jones, the handsome and charming jock who becomes the quasi-leader of the group. Kate Melton plays Daphne Blake, the cute, superrich drama queen. Hayley Kiyoko plays Velma Dinkley, the cute, supersmart science geek. And Nick Palatas plays Norville "Shaggy" Rogers, the klutzy loner with the changing voice who, rightly, gets the bulk of the screen time. (Did the show's original creators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, pattern Shaggy after Bob Denver's Maynard G. Krebs in TV's old "Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"? It sure seems like it.)
As the film progresses, so do the friendships among the primary characters. While in detention, the young people discover they share a passion for mysteries, and, naturally, a mystery drops right in their lap when a pair of ghosts show up, led by a malevolent, demonic entity. The teens decide it's up to them to band together, along with Scooby, solve the dilemma, and put things to right.
The plot, reminiscent of elements in "Ghostbusters" and "Poltergeist," is preposterous, of course, just as most of the plots in TV cartoon series are preposterous; it's the rapport among the characters that's important, and here the new cast members excel. The young performers are all personable, amiable, and appealing (as opposed to the big-name stars of the previous "Scooby-Doo" movies, who could be irritating, annoying, and off-putting).
Director Brian Levant ("Jingle All the Way," "Snow Dogs," "Are We There Yet?") keeps things moving along by reining in the dialogue and excising anything that doesn't directly affect the action. The movie is short at only eighty-two minutes, and space is at a premium.
The story line tends to run out of steam about halfway through, but that's OK. It's still fun to watch, and it seldom resorts to the kind of silly, slapstick shenanigans we had to endure in the past live-action "Scooby" films. Instead, the new one relies on the sort of simplicity and directness that distinguished the early cartoons. In the best Abbott-and-Costello tradition, for example, nobody believes the teenagers about the ghosts they say they've seen, and, despite a plea from the Principal (Shawn MacDonald), VP Grimes expels them from school for causing trouble. The team's disguises later in the movie are also amusing, and to the filmmakers' credit, they use only one fart joke to appease youngsters in the audience.
I found "Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins" a kind and gentle tale, taking us back to the friends' beginnings as a team, their formation of "Mystery, Inc.," and their acquisition of the "Mystery Machine." The movie is nothing to write home about, perhaps, but it's nothing to dismiss out of hand, either, and it's about time the cartoon got the live-action treatment it deserves.
The DVD's anamorphic transfer preserves the movie's 1.78:1 television ratio in fairly bright, rich colors. These colors may be a bit brighter than real life, but it's all right because the movie represents a cartoon, after all. Contrasts and black levels are fine, too, all the better for bringing out the hues. Although there is some minor line shimmer and a few jaggies, there's nothing serious, and the overall delineation looks quite good for standard definition.
For anybody expecting typical television sound, the audio will come as a pleasant surprise. The Dolby Digital 5.1 displays a wide stereo spread and quite a lot of surround activity, utilizing a decent frequency response and dynamic range to enhance the listening experience. Put another way, the soundtrack is about 100% better than I thought it was going to be.
The extras don't amount to much, but like the movie they're harmless and respectable. We get a four-minute featurette called "Scooby-Doo Coolsville High Video Yearbook," which tells us a little more about the main characters; a "Scooby-Doo Mystery Inc. Personality Quiz," which uses a series of questions to help determine the "Scooby-Doo" movie character you are most like; a six-minute featurette called "Cast Time Capsule: Fun on the Set," which offers up some behind-the-scenes hijinks; and a six-minute gag reel.
The bonus materials conclude with a music video, "You and I" by Anarbor; some trailers at start-up and in the main menu; twenty-two scene selections; English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai spoken languages; French, Portuguese, and Thai subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and an embossed slipcover for the keep case to tie everything together.
When Warner Bros. made their first two live-action "Scooby-Doo" theatrical releases, I disliked them intensely, using words like "inane," "witless," and "dumb" to describe them. This time out, the studio did it up right, rather than trying to remake the "Scooby-Doo" cartoon franchise into something it never was, working with it. "Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins" is sweet and charming, succeeding as a genuine gathering of friends. While it's not a movie most adults might run out and buy, it's good enough that I wouldn't mind seeing the same cast reunite for another full-length go-round.
"Scooby-Doo, where are you?" He's right here, and it's time to see more of him.