Hollywood has a big problem in the form of a pup named Scooby-Doo. It seems ridiculous, as we enter the final hurdle of the year, the idea that certain subsections of the internet would be spending their time ferociously arguing about a big screen reboot of the beloved Hanna-Barbara property. Yet, for 2019, if anything we’re staying pretty on-brand where film discourse is concerned.
Scooby-Doo, the canine sleuth with a nose for danger and a heart of gold, was last seen in cinemas back in 2004. Neil Fanning stepped in for voice work as casting for the iconic character underwent a transitional period following the passing of Hanna-Barbara veteran Don Messick. Fanning was accompanied by a cluster of 90s and early ‘oughts stars; Matthew Lillard (Scream, Hackers), Freddie Prinze Jr. (I Know What You Did Last Summer, She’s All That), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cruel Intentions), and Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks, Legally Blonde).
The two films performed admirably and, while critical reactions were a couple of miles south of Coolsville, their reappraisal over the years has widely accepted the live action iterations of Mystery Incorporated as being just about as close as you can get to picture perfect representations of iconic toons. In fact, Lillard’s infectious, vocally fried Shaggy, originally portrayed by radio host Casey Kasem, was so uncanny that he was asked to take on the voice in television and direct-to-DVD films since Kasem’s retirement in 2009, and has held the role ever since.
As a big Scooby fan, especially of the work that Matthew Lillard has been doing with Shaggy for the last ten years, I was cautiously yet naively optimistic way back in 2014 when a new animated film was announced. Surely, by sticking to its animated roots, there would be no need for a big screen Scooby feature to replace its existing and entirely capable vocal staff.
If anything, Scoob!’s promise to revitalize Hanna Barbera’s lesser-known properties for a new audience should impose some sense of brand synergy for the property. Kids who are comfortably familiar with the performances of Lillard, Kate Miccuci and Grey DeLisle may find it disconcerting hear new voices. And, bear in mind, other than the short-lived prequel cartoon A Pup Named Scooby Doo back in the 80s, we have never heard Mystery Inc.’s leader and trap-extraordinaire Fred Jones voiced by anyone but Frank Welker.
When Forte was announced alongside Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, and Gina Rodriguez, the controversy of the film’s production slowly but surely began to unravel. Despite being helmed by Scooby regular Tony Cervone, upon the announcement of the cast and release date of the new film Matthew Lillard revealed there had been absolutely no good will shown to the current cast by the production team. Not only had Lillard not been asked back to a job he’s held since 2009, Warner Bros. had not even informed the cast that their voices would be given the Hollywood treatment and replaced for the big screen.
By 2019, I had grown older. My optimism in cinema’s future had dwindled and any flicker of hope I had that the grounds on which the institution of the Scooby-Doo franchise walked would not be desecrated by obligatory Hollywood casting mandates had been replaced by grim acceptance. Yes, a big screen reboot of a kids cartoon ideally needs some big names to throw up on posters and billboards. But Warner Bros., I must ask you, sincerely: is anyone seeing the new Scooby-Doo movie for Will Forte?
Don’t get me wrong, Forte is always a welcome presence. He’s an endearing comedian with the sort of puppy dog energy that any cartoon franchise would be lucky to have. But, unless some Warner Bros. exec genuinely thought the scenes with Kaitlyn Dever’s parents were the best part of Booksmart, or perhaps fondly remembers his guest spots on 30 Rock, there really should be no reason why the official voice of Shaggy—or any members of Mystery Inc.—should be unceremoniously shafted for the potential of a few more ticket sales.
Add this to the fact that the casting of Gina Rodriguez as Velma has still not been reconciled after the actress has been criticized heavily for her use of racist slurs and poor behavior, and Scoob!’s cast of so-called box office draws is starting to look like the first in a long line of missteps for the upcoming reboot. The Jane the Virgin star has already burned bridges among her fan-base, so the decision to introduce Rodriguez and her ongoing baggage into a family-friendly franchise is turning a lot of fans away.
While no 21st Century Scooby series has yet reached the heights of the 2010-2013 series Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, the franchise is still going strong. For nostalgic fans, tuning into the latest TV and DVD offerings might be a safer alternative.
Outside of the film’s troubling casting calls, the latest trailer released by Warner Bros. has done little to stifle the concern emanating from the resilient Scooby fandom. Frank Welker, mercifully, has been kept as the mystery solver’s loyal mascot. The voice is still spot on, if a little long in the tooth, but the decision to boost Scooby’s vocabulary by having him speak in grammatically coherent and snarky full sentences in this instance feels cheap.
The Scooby-centric episodes of Mystery Incorporated saw the doggy detective speak longer than we’ve ever heard before, but that series was expressly conceived to flesh out the archetypal characters and explore their dynamics with one another. Here, it feels like a shallow move to reinvent Scooby as a marketable sidekick, indistinguishable from the referential playthings churned out by Illumination or Blue Sky. I’m not quite sure what items would appear on my wish list for a blockbuster Scooby-Doo film, but a reference to IKEA sure ain’t one of them.
As a lifelong fan of the talking dog and his mystery solving friends, I will be loyally purchasing a ticket to Scoob! come May 2020. I hope my predictions for the lackluster cast will be proven wrong and I’ll realize that my disinterest in any Hanna-Barbara property that doesn’t feature a flower power camper van is completely misinformed.
But even watching the trailer on mute, imagining the dialogue uttered by voice actors with the rightful claims to those characters, the homogeneous and familiar 3D animation style is missing that Scooby magic. Gone are the washed out, spooky tones of the 60s and 70s original series and the angular, retro look affectionately updated by Mystery Incorporated. What began life as a show whose animation style, kooky character design and occasionally unsettling atmosphere could genuinely frighten children introduced to the show just a little too early has been abandoned for plush, squeaky clean character models and uninspired settings.
Sure, I’m excited to see a new take on the Scooby property next year, hopefully in a cinema full of fans just as dedicated to the enduring characters as I am. But it will be with the same misplaced diligence I apply whenever a new season of Doctor Who rolls around. If Raja Gonsell’s live-action takes on the cartoon (and, to a much lesser extent, the two live-action sequels which, yes, I have seen) were intended as crass yet affectionate continuations of the classic series, Scoob! feels like rewriting history.
At least fans can look forward to a more faithful shot of nostalgia, with anticipated sequels to franchise favorites Scooby Doo! Return to Zombie Island and Scooby Doo! and the Curse of the Thirteenth Ghost out now on DVD and digital.
Scoob! hits theaters in 2020