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'Scooby-Doo' is a doggie treat for the whole family

Friday, June 14, 2002

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Considering Hollywood's difficulty translating cartoons into live-action features -- think "The Flintstones," "Dudley Do-Right" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle" -- what were the chances that "Scooby-Doo" would be anything other than a big dog?


RATING: PG for some rude humor, language and some scary action

STARRING: Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard

DIRECTOR: Raja Gosnell

WEB SITE: promo.warnerbros.com



Slim. Especially because, all fuzzy nostalgia aside, "Scooby-Doo" was no "Flintstones."

Add to it the fact that the previews make it look truly awful.

Now let's try to figure out why "Scooby-Doo" turned out to be so much better.

It might be the possibilities "Scooby-Doo" had for scaring up the hot young stars of the "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" series; or the fact that it manages to pull off the animated big Dane quite nicely; or the better plot, pacing and dialogue.

Or maybe we just skip all that and go to the unsung hero of "Scooby-Doo": production designer Bill Boes. In scene after scene, Boes steals the show, making "Scooby-Doo" burst with colorful, ambitious and playfully spooky sets befitting the psychedelic '60s. It's no surprise to learn that he played assistant to Tim Burton on "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Sleepy Hollow."

Most of the folks involved, from director Raja Gosnell down to Freddie Prinze Jr., entered the project with a reverence for Hanna-Barbera's "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" which debuted on CBS in 1969 as a cartoon about four groovy crime-solvers and a cowardly dog and is still going strong all these years later on the Cartoon Network.

The "Scooby-Doo" movie begins with what looks like the end. The Mystery Inc. crew is wrapping up another spooky case, but there's trouble in the ranks. The plan is to split up, mostly to get away from team leader Fred Jones (Prinze Jr.) and his whole ascot-wearing, platinum-haired Prince Charming shtick.

Two years later -- and there's no real sense of when this takes place, other than knowing that Sugar Ray, the band, was not around in the '70s -- they are summoned to the Spooky Island amusement park, where teen-agers are flocking for spring break fun and exiting as drones given to macrobursts of violence. Could be someone's funny idea of social commentary. Maybe not.

The old "Scooby" logic would tell us immediately that behind this diabolical plot is the suspicious park director Mondavarious, played with squirrelly-eyed style by Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson.

"Scoob and I don't do castles," Shaggy says. But you just know they're going to have to poke around in one. And you just know that the pictures are going to have moving eyeballs. And you know that Velma (Linda Cardellini, from "Freaks and Geeks") is going to lose her glasses and that Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) will end up as bait. "I'm so over this damsel-in-distress bit," she says when we first meet her.

Gosnell and company deliver on all these necessities, poking fun at the "Scooby" cliches as they joyfully line them up one after another. Still, the movie doesn't play out as predictably as expected, not that it matters a whole lot.

Like the cartoon, most of the fun comes from Scooby and Shaggy, who muddle through their adventures on the promise of sandwiches and "Scooby snacks." Matthew Lillard is a virtual scream as Shaggy and, despite the overly dilated pupils, the computer-animated Scooby becomes almost as lovable of the original after a brief adjustment period.

Word is that in the early scripts and even some of the outtakes, the temptation was to play up the PG-13 aspects of "Scooby-Doo," such as the source of Shaggy's munchies, Fred and Daphne's romance and the what's-up-with-Velma? issue.

In the end, they PG-ed it down, letting the stars draw in the teen crowd and letting the wee ones have some fun. Parents should be warned that there are "Ronsters!," as Scooby calls them, that kids under 5 may not care for. And there's a sort-of freaky scene of Shaggy's girlfriend doing a quick alien morph on a motorcycle.

For the most part, Gosnell does a bang-up job of building up the frightful moments and knocking them down with a laugh, making the movie's tagline, "Be afraid. Be kind of afraid," pretty much on target.

The stakes were high. The results are surprisingly Shaggy-delic.

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