The idea of a live-action Scooby-Doo movie was unappealing enough to put me off for over a decade. There was just no way I could imagine the product as anything but hokey & outdated. The truth wasn’t that far off. The jokes in the 2002 Scooby-Doo were cheap & hokey, but no more cheap & hokey than its Hanna-Barbera source material. Adding an air of sophistication to a cartoon about a half-talking dog who solves mysteries with his stoner owner/bro would surely be a misstep. No, to do it right, you’d have to include some stunt cameos (including a bizarrely intimate moment with the band Sugar Ray), some “you meddling kids” call-backs and, of course, a multiple-scene fart gag. Something for the parents, something for the kids.
It was the curious detail of James Gunn’s screenplay credit that eventually brought me around on the idea. How could the twisted mind behind Slither and Tromeo & Juliet be responsible for a franchise so seemingly innocuous? The answer, obviously, is that Scooby-Doo actually has some sharp teeth hidden in its smiling jowls. Among the Sugar Rays & fart gags, Gunn worked in some subversive humor about things like Fred’s masculine vanity, murderous monsters, gender swapping, and Shaggy’s love of Mary Jane (a character whose name is winked at you too hard to ignore even if you wanted to). It’s not like this line of writer’s room mischief (including the drug culture references) wasn’t present in the hippie-era Scooby cartoons. It was there. Gunn just has a clever way of updating that rebellious spirit with just enough snark & meta-commentary to make it feel modern without undermining his screenplay’s reverence for the source material. It’s that balance of perverse pranks & childlike exuberance that Gunn brought to last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, as opposed to the unbridled sadism he infused in projects like Super & 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Scooby-Doo is far from James Gunn’s most personal work, but it’s easy to find his personality in it.
The only crippling flaw I can find in this (mercifully short) trifle is the shoddy CGI on the monsters & Scooby himself, which seems like an important detail to nail. Otherwise, it exceeded most expectations, especially in the 90s/00s flashback cast. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddy Prinze Jr, Linda Cardenelli, and Matthew Lillard were kinda perfect as the Mystery Inc. crew. Lillard’s Shaggy was so perfect, in fact, that he still provides the voice for the character’s current animated incarnation. Unfortunately, bringing back the same cast (with welcome additions Peter Boyle & Alicia Silverstone) and James Gunn’s pen for 2004’s Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed failed to overcome the sequel law of diminishing returns. Monsters Unleashed boasts the same brand of hokey fun as its predecessor, but with the sharp teeth & personality removed. It’s the bland paycheck project I expected when I read James Gunn’s screenplay credit on the original. Instead I was treated to some great, dumb, mischievous fun. I shouldn’t have waited twelve years for that treat.