There’s a moment early in “Scoob!” when a bowling alley attendant tells a group of crime-solving teens that some robots have just attacked “a talking dog and this gangly dude who had the 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.”
That’s the world in which this latest iteration of the Scooby-Doo franchise exists – a world that’s very aware of its own silliness and its time-honored tropes, a world where apprehended bad guys not only say, “I would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids,” but say it in a way that makes fun of the fact that they’re saying it.
And it’s a world that knows it was started by some middle-aged TV executives making a show about teenage hippies back in 1969.
In other words, “Scoob!” is determined to have its cake and eat it, too – to give the kids an animated mystery complete with slapstick comedy, frenetic action, talking animals and costumed superheroes, but also to keep up a steady stream of inside jokes, many of them aimed at parents who are old enough to remember the origins of the Hannah-Barbara multiverse way back when.
Of course, there are certain limitations to this franchise, whether or not you remember the original version or “The New Scooby-Doo Movies” version or the “Scooby-Doo’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics” version or “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo” version or the Sarah Michelle Gellar/Matthew Lillard/Linda Cardellini/Freddie Prinze Jr. 2002 movie version. Those limitations – the same inescapable story beats, humor that defaults to dopiness and a Hannah-Barbera aesthetic that doesn’t trigger nostalgia quite as effectively as they’d like it to – ensure that “Scoob!” is at its best merely diverting, though they also make it the perfect kind of movie to slide easily from a planned theatrical release to this coronavirus-prompted VOD debut.
Directed by Tony Cervone, a veteran of Warner Bros. Animation and Nickleodeon, “Scoob!” starts with an origin story: Scooby’s a hyperactive stray dog who’s being chased down the Venice boardwalk after stealing a whole wheel of gyro from a pita stand, and Norville Rogers – “Shaggy” to you and me and everybody else – is a lonely little kid who could use a friend. They become instant pals, encounter a trio of teens named Fred, Daphne and Velma, solve a mystery involving a haunted house and become a team of paranormal investigators — although when they decide to keep the gang together, one of them wonders, “How many scary monsters could there be?”
All of this happens before the opening credits, which end with them all grown to the age that they were back when the first “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” series hit CBS in 1969.
Scooby, by the way, has learned to enunciate a little more clearly over the years, which is good news for voiceover artist Frank Welker, who voices him. Welker is another nod to the franchise’s history, since he played Fred in the original cartoons. Zac Efron is Fred this time around, with Amanda Seyfried as Daphne, Gina Rodriguez as Velma and Will Forte stepping into Casey Kasem’s (and Matthew Lillard’s) shoes as Shaggy, the goodhearted but hapless hero of most every Scooby story.
To nobody’s surprise, the story sticks to the old template: Creepy things happen, there’s a nefarious bad guy involved, the kids jump into action and (spoiler alert!) everything works out in the end. The difference is that this time around, Simon Cowell makes an appearance to drive the kids apart, because he doesn’t care about friendship. (The fact that Cowell serves as the embodiment of unfeeling meanness may be a tipoff that this film has been in the works for a long time.)
The baddest bad guy, though, is an old Hannah Barbera standby, Dick Dastardly, who’s got a steampunk-style spaceship, an army of miniature metal minions and a plot to open the gates to the underworld, which apparently were sealed by Alexander the Great (and his dog!) a very long time ago. In cartoons like “Wacky Races,” Dastardly was always a pretty inept master villain, but Jason Isaacs works overtime to leaven the slapstick with just enough menace.
Dastardly also has a canine sidekick, Muttley – and so does Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg), a superhero with his own Saturday-morning pedigree and his own best friend in Dynomutt, Dog Wonder.
The plot is functional enough, zipping around the globe in a way the original Scoopy kids could rarely manage. There are big action setpieces, important lessons learned about friendship and lots of opportunities to slide in references to toxic masculinity and imposter syndrome and copyright infringement.
And eventually, things get downright supernatural, which to my mind is always kind of a cheat when it comes to Scooby-Doo — I mean, what was wrong with all of those sinister baddies who we discovered were just pretending to be ghosts until the meddling kids ripped off their masks?
There’s some of mask-ripping here, too, because of course there is. If there’s something you remember, or liked, about any iteration of “Scooby-Doo,” you’ll probably find it, or a joke about it, in “Scoob!” It gets to be a little tiring, but maybe it helps all this frantic silliness go down just a little easier, too.