Though I'm a bit loathe to admit it, I grew up as a fan of Scooby Doo, so I warily carried my misguided affection for the titular mutt, the colorful Mystery Machine van, the haunted houses, and the cheesy masked villains who invariably muttered the immortal line, "I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids!" into the multiplex for the obligatory multi-million-dollar feature update. But the new Scooby Doo--taken for a walk by director Raja Gosnell and screenwriter James Gunn--substitutes the various TV series' simplistic cartoon charms for their antitheses: overly busy production design, editing, and demographic pursuit.
Beginning in 1969, the reluctant crime-solving dog appeared in a dozen series incarnations through the late eighties, making Scooby Doo the longest-running network cartoon to date. As a result, Gosnell's film serves two masters: present-day kids (prepped by modern, direct-to-video Scooby features) and their nostalgic teenage and twenty-something elders. Gosnell's Scooby Doo isn't unwatchable--in fits and starts, it can be fun--but in the end, it's little more than an overbudgeted narrative mess. Undiscriminating kids will enjoy the ride, which at least carries a nominal "Friends don't quit" message that's rather sweet.
The heavy lifting on the friendship theme is done by Matthew Lillard, gamely channeling Kasey Kasem to provide both voice and body for the hippie-like, dog's-best-friend Shaggy. Shaggy, the cowardly human equivalent to the scaredy-dog named Doo, plays cheerleader to Mystery Inc., a gang of young detectives who--as the film opens--find themselves knee-deep in "The Case of the Luna Ghost." Fred (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), a square, handsome preppy type, plays quarterback for the team, though the bookish, homely Velma (Linda Cardellini) scores most of the points. Rounding out Mystery Inc. is the pretty and proud Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), whose primary function seems to be to get intercepted or, in another word, kidnapped.
Once Gunn dispatches with the opening retro adventure, he begins deconstructing the formula--a la the nineties Brady Bunch features--by deconstructing the gang and sending all but the inseparable Shaggy and Scooby off on solo careers. Beckoned to amusement park Spooky Island (Proudly Dispensing CGI Since 2001!) by proprietor Emile Mondavarious (welcome but wasted Rowan Atkinson), the gang reunites to solve the mystery of young body-snatched spring-breakers.
The tension between old and new fashion opens up the film by ripping it down the middle. The film is mostly bound to a noisy, short-attention-span set-piece rhythm, but Gunn peppers the film with abortive, encoded in-joke references for the adult audience (hinting at Velma's purported lesbianism and the show's marijuana chic of sixties van and obsessive munching) and the half-reverent inclusion of a notorious Scooby-Doo character. This--like many kiddie movie plot threads--thoughtlessly undermines the film's own moral objective of tolerant friendship. The restless Scooby himself, though suitably impressive, loses most of his wide-eyed cartoon expression behind beady, vacant CGI eyes.
Aside from the garish extravagance (I could retire happily from film criticism if I was promised no more fussily overdecorated, nouveau-ancient chambers which unfold like plastic toys to reveal magical totems), Scooby-Doo is mostly harmless kiddie nonsense. Then again, moments like an unseemly belch and fart contest are enough to remind us that this boy-dog love story is a long way from Old Yeller.