Scooby Doo

Starring:
  • Matthew Lillard's Defining Performance
  • Freddie Prinze's Lack of Charisma
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar Looking Too Skinny Even to Be a Cartoon Character

 

Directed by the Assistant Editor of Quintet, H.E.A.L.T.H., AND Popeye

"You would think that it's pretty pathetic that the only roles I get involve me watching you make out with Jessica Biel and Brittany Murphy, but it's not. I am Shaggy, dammit! This is the definitive role of my career! So why don't you go stick your tongue down Sara's skinny throat, because I don't need you anymore!!!"

A Defining Role

Rarely does an actor embody a role such that they become entwined, actor and character, thespian and legend—one's entire career shaped by a single performance, the actor virtually losing his identity, all his roles considered in terms of a single performance, as if that character is the man. Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle. Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. James Dean as Jim Stark. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp. Humphrey Bogart as the owner of Rick's Cafe Americain.

To that list, we must add Matthew Lillard as Norville "Shaggy" Rogers.

Or do we? Many thought that Rob Lowe's performance as Shaggy on "Saturday Night Live" was untouchable, but I would argue that, as great a "Zoinks!" as Lowe crowed, that Lillard's Shaggy is a more full-bodied Shaggy—a realization of his essence fleshed out over the two hours we spend with him and Mystery, Inc. Lillard throws everything he has at the role: He conveys the fright of spooky amusement parks by pulling his bottom lip over his chin, his yearning for best pal Scooby by craning his neck nearly off his shoulders. In Shaggy's more tender moments, Lillard's frantic tenor dissolves into softness and selfless compassion, essentially conveying the relationship between a man and his best friend—quite an amazing feat, considering that his best friend is entirely a computer creation. Yet Lillard burrows so deeply into this character's friendship that when his infamous cowardice gives way to bravery in the final act's rescue of Scooby Doo, the decision doesn't seem contrived for the sake of plot resolution.

I'm joking, of course, but I'm not going to dismiss Lillard's performance out-of-hand simply because he's Matthew Lillard playing Shaggy in the Scooby Doo movie. He really is very good. Lately, I've watched so many great actors give half-ass performances in bad movies that it's refreshing to see an actor of lesser ability putting it all on the line, even if for nothing at all. For instance, watching Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company is like watching the Lakers play the Memphis Grizzlies. But watching Lillard and Sarah Michelle Gellar give their all in a movie like Scooby Doo is like watching the Grizzlies and the Clippers battle to avoid the Western Conference cellar. Though still terrible, it is convicted and occasionally transcendent of its own ineptitude, creating moments of unintentional genius that's far more interesting than watching, say, Morgan Freeman feign horror while waiting on the Super Bowl to blow up.

In actuality, Scooby Doo could have worked in a Josie and the Pussycats kind of way. Scooby Doo sets up the same idea: In Josie, Alan Cumming uses the band as an innocent, unaware vehicle through which to control the minds of children, using Carson Daly as a sort of henchman. That film contained some mild, sometimes amusing satire on mass media and the like, filmed entirely with in a sort of candy-colored dreamscape meant as an impression of a culture saturated by advertising. The design of Scooby Doo is similar: Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) runs an amusement park whose entertainment is designed to brainwash college students. Mark McGrath (the peroxide-scalped lead singer of Sugar Ray) gets the Carson Daly role, who performs his soulless rock amongst a cartoonish set resembling something that might be Silver Dollar City with a Halloween theme.

The first thirty minutes of Scooby Doo sets up this idea while introducing us to the crew of Mystery, Inc.: a quartet of pop archetypes who cover the spectrum of teen stock characters, minus, perhaps, Emilio Estevez's greaser from The Breakfast Club. Freddie Prinze plays Fred like, well, Freddie Prinze trying to be "Face" from "The A-Team." Sarah Michelle Gellar is a girl-empowered Daphne Spice who wants to be as TOUGH AS NAILS as Sandra Bullock. Lillard's Shaggy is like the Dell computer dude playing a stoner Screech. The most interesting member of Mystery, Inc. is Linda Cartellucci as Velma, a rocket scientist Thora Birch whose model of femininity is Janeane Garafolo. The opening excavates the issues that always lurked below the surface of the cartoon that were never properly explored: The sexual tension between Daphne, Fred, and Velma. Daphne is sick of being "The Damsel in Distress," and she is emboldened to do something about it, rather than just be Fred's flirt toy. Fred, a Ken doll adorning the cover of TigerBeat, hogs the camera when explaining the mechanics of a mystery, much to the resentment of Velma, the brains of the operation who never gets the credit she deserves. The role plays to Prinze's vanities, as if it's making fun of him to his own oblivion. Cartellucci's "Freaks and Geeks" experience creates a great foil, resulting in some ironic good humor, like when Prinze tells her, "I am a man of substance. Dorky chicks turn me on too."

I take the time to set all this up to convey my disappointment in how it turns out. Scooby Doo could have been a decent little satire of the teen genre movies—training videos of How To Be an American Teenager—wrapped around an enjoyable kids movie. Honestly, during the first thirty or so minutes, I was getting into the previously described setup, and I was amused rather than annoyed when the theater full of kids all screamed, "Look! Scooby!" when the mutt came on screen. Heck, even a few of the parents clapped when the Mystery Machine first pulled up. The potential is there. I imagine that the original script was quite brilliant, in its way, like I think the first draft of Bring It On probably was a decent satire of the media's effect on the female image told through a cheerleading competition. But Scooby Doo feels like the producers showed up halfway through the shooting and screamed, "What are you doing?!? This is supposed to be a kids movie that's hip for adults too! Didn't you people see Shrek? The story has to set up all these fart jokes, yet have enough double-entendre humor so everyone will think it's cool! C'mon people!"

The movie turns on a dime after Mr. Bean lets the gang loose in the amusement park, resulting in an embarrassing five minute fart and belch sequence with Scooby and Shaggy, Scrappy Doo peeing on Daphne, pot-and-munchies gags, snot jokes, and more cleavage than is necessary. The film just falls apart—take, for instance, Velma's donning of the orange turtleneck in favor of a breast-glimpsing V-neck, only to revert back to the sweater near the end, all of which for no real reason. The plot gets Tomb Raider-y, involving itself in some incomprehensible subplot involving spirits leaving the body through protoplasm and communicating with the dead through a magic pyramid, or something like that. The story becomes a way to get from one set piece to another, culminating into a frantic ska-themed finale of Drew Barrymore-brand grrrl power, pro rasslin' stunts, and snot gags. The ending is so disappointing, so obvious a plea to the die hards that's rather lame. A better play to the diehards, and the rest of us, would have been an elaborate set piece involving trick pulleys, bad guys slipping on soap suds and falling into washing machines, glow paint for ghostly effect—maybe even a guest appearance by an old guest star, like Meadowlark Lemon or Jerry Reed, or maybe a new guest star. I think Rosie could have fit the bill, or maybe The Rock.

It became rather obvious that this film didn't have the guts to follow through on its original ideas. It should have been the redemption of the most-oft forgotten member of the cast, Velma, a statement that geeks can be as cool as preps too. The director, Raja Gosnell, got his start with Robert Altman, so maybe this venture was cursed from the outset. He had a hand in Popeye, a supposed kids movie that Altman turned into a Marxist rant. Scooby Doo could have had subtext going for it, but its end-sum is animated dog snot foiling the evil mastermind. The difference between the first half and the last half is this: In the last half, Scooby blows snot all over the place for people to slip on; in the first half, a pretty girl sneezes, the camera cuts to Shaggy, whose eyes light up while he says, "Bless you," as the camera cuts back to the pretty girl wiping the snot off her hand, raising her head up in front of the moon like an angel. Bad snot joke; good snot joke. And rather than focusing on the character with the most range and most to give to the story, it exploits her breasts in an attempt to be hip.

The Pitch:
     
1 The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas
Plus
 
1 Josie and the Pussycats
Equals
   
2 Scooby Doo
See It For:
Shaggy trying to figure out how Velma suddenly developed cleavage.