Despite seemingly countless iterations and nearly 50 years of cultural credibility, there’s the prevailing sense that audiences are still hungry for more Scooby Doo. On the big screen, the goofball dog and his meddling friends have already been given the live-action treatment twice in the early 2000s, but Warner Bros. has officially made the transition into a CG-animated version of the classic cartoon, which is now streaming on PVOD (premium video-on-demand).
Scoob! tries to have a little bit of everything, but it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. It first serves as an origin story for how Shaggy met and named his furry pal, but gone are the ambiguities of his weird appetite being informed by 70s hippie stereotypes. Instead, the characters occupy the present day, so we meet a young Shaggy (initially voiced by Iain Armitage and then Will Forte as an adult) walking down a California boardwalk shuffling songs on a smartphone until he gets to a podcast hosted by Ira Glass—one of the film’s first of many instantly-dated pop culture gags, which also include jokes about Netflix, Tinder, and Simon Cowell.
Bizarrely, the formation of Mystery Inc. is treated with even tamer kiddie gloves than expected for a film squarely aimed at young kids who won’t notice the adult humor sprinkled throughout (assuming sheltered kids won’t understand a reference to “F-bombs.”) Instead, Shaggy and Scoob (voiced by Frank Welker, the original voice of Fred and then Scooby Doo after 2002) meet Velma, Fred, and Daphne as pre-teens without much fanfare, solve a banal mystery on Halloween, then after an awkwardly-realized recreation of the original opening sequence, the film tries to become a whole other movie, or at least something resembling the status-quo breaking mystery of the first live-action film.
As adults—and apparently millennials, as the film weirdly points out, even though they should probably count as Gen Z—the voice actors come out in full force with Zac Efron as Fred, Gina Rodriguez as Velma (rewritten to be Latinx, though the movie usually forgets about this), and Amanda Seyfried as Daphne). But just when you think Scoob! has more or less found its footing with a new mystery that will prove to be “too big” for a small screen animated show, the movie switches gears yet again by serving itself up a precursor to a massive, unrelenting shared cinematic universe for the larger library of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, with voices from Mark Wahlberg, Ken Jeong, Kiersey Clemons, and many more.
The conceit of a movie like this makes plenty of business sense, and from a creative viewpoint, Warner Bros. has a tremendous opportunity here to carve out its own unique rebranding of the classic toons that will bring older fans of the original characters together with their kids and grandkids, who might be experiencing these stories for the first time. Sadly, Scoob! establishes a mismatched tone for how these cartoons could be mashed together like they were in the crossovers of the past. For example, our villain, Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), is a clear ripoff of Gru from Despicable Me, borrowing heavily from the comedic “Minion” formula without ever properly setting itself apart. Similar to how the outfits worn by our “modern-day” heroes are still mostly calling back to 70s fashion, these characters just don’t mesh with the movie they’re operating in.
For plenty of kids, these modern updates will be forgettable and easily forgivable for a splashy movie where the core cast is decently animated (though the background characters look shockingly unfinished). But Scoob! rarely gets the soul of Scooby Doo right, opting for touring other genres like pulpy action adventure and comic book superheroes in favor of…well, an actual mystery. It’s a transparent ploy to pander, rather than do the tough job of showing kids something they don’t know they like yet.
So on top of forcing itself to be partly prequel, Scoob! also attempts to break the fourth wall, set up more movies with other Hanna-Barbera characters, tease its own franchise of movies, layer in nostalgic easter eggs to the original cartoon, deliver story arcs for characters outside the core cast, shoehorn dramatic conflict between Scoob and Shaggy, insert superhero movie tropes that also throw in some sci-fi for good measure, manufacture mumbo jumbo macguffins that excuse a globe-trotting adventure that can include even more new characters, tosses in a quick villain backstory or two, and then tops everything off with an onslaught of puns and expected nods to phrases they’d be virtually fined by the superfans for leaving out.
Scoob! is just trying to do way too much, and as a result, its engine backfires, and we maybe only skid a few feet forward. And it appears the destination is another half-hearted attempt to recreate the guaranteed money machine of those Marvel movies, but without much of a vision guiding the direction of what these movies should look and sound like beyond an unrefined animation palette and script punch-ups that go for easy, fizzy jokes.
It’s not a movie completely devoid of laughs, if only because there are so many different types of comedy here, it’d be even more tragic if they missed the mark on all of them. And there’s certainly some imaginative moments and set pieces that lovingly hearken back to the zippy animation of the 1970s. If only they could have imagined a better story to bring all these characters together.