[Screen It]

(2002) (Matthew Lillard, Freddie Prinze, Jr.) (PG)

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Comedy: A disbanded quartet of crime solvers and their talking dog reunite when they travel to an amusement park island and try to figure out why its visitors are mysteriously turning into zombies.
Fred (FREDDIE PRINZE JR.), Daphne (SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR), Velma (LINDA CARDELLINI), Shaggy (MATTHEW LILLARD) and his talking dog, Scooby-Doo (voice of NEIL FANNING), make up Mystery, Inc., a crime-solving quintet that's able to crack most any mystery - supernatural or not -- despite their moderate ineptness.

Yet, their differences - Fred being the conceited one, Daphne usually ending up as the damsel in distress, Velma being the brainy one and Shaggy coming off as something of a goofy but good-natured scaredy cat - eventually cause them to disband, much to Shaggy and Scooby's dismay.

Two years later, the group ends up being reunited on Spooky Island, a macabre amusement park run by Emile Mondavarious (ROWAN ATKINSON) and frequented by those on spring break. While Shaggy and Scooby are happy to see the others and eager to reunite, Fred, Daphne and Velma want nothing to do with the rest, although they accept Mondavarious' request that they get to the bottom of a mystery regarding the island's guests.

It appears that while they arrive chipper, the students leave in something of a zombie state that makes Mondavarious believe a spell has been cast over the island. Accordingly, the former members of Mystery Inc. - and Shaggy's new friend, Mary Jane (ISLA FISHER) -- set out to get to the bottom of the mystery and eventually reunite, all while dealing with various characters and phenomena.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Some people like the pairing of peanut butter and jelly, others prefer franks and beans, and then there are those who enjoy the tasty potential of certain Hollywood players getting together and making popcorn-style entertainment. Examples of that have been the likes of Hope & Crosby, Spielberg and Ford and Julia Roberts and most any romantic comedy costar.

Other than their friends, family and smitten teenage girls, however, it seems highly unlikely that many people anxiously await the next pairing of actors Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard. After all, the duo's last three films together - 1999's "She's All That" and "Wing Commander" and 2001's "Summer Catch" - have not been - how shall I put it? - good, with the three films averaging a measly 2.33 on our 1 to 10 scale.

Their latest endeavor - which also involves a more longstanding entertainment partnership - isn't going to be bringing up that average. That's because the live-action adaptation of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera's cartoon series, "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" is pretty bad.

A simple look at the source material should have been a dead giveaway for the pending disaster. Debuting back in 1969, the cartoon series featured a wacky quartet and their semi-talking dog who solved mysteries while fending off ghosts, ghouls and the like. While popular over various generations - mine included (yes, I eagerly awaited every Sat. morning to watch that show along with many others of that era) - the series and its individual episodes didn't really offer much from an artistic standpoint - in terms of drawing or writing - unlike shows such as "The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour."

Of course, old kid-friendly shows such as "The Brady Bunch" weren't critically lauded efforts, but the movie adaptations turned out to be fun due to the way the material was handled, arranged and then delivered. Then again, adaptations of the likes of "The Flintstones," "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Josie the Pussycats" turned out to be artistic flops, and this picture joins them in such regards.

As written by screenwriter James Gunn ("The Specials") and directed by Raja Gosnell ("Big Momma's House," "Never Been Kissed"), the film does succeed - much like "The Flintstones" - in capturing the series look as well as in creating the kid-friendly funhouse aura.

Those playing the members of Mystery, Inc. -- Freddie Prinze Jr. ("Summer Catch," "Head Over Heels"), Sarah Michelle Gellar ("Cruel Intentions," "Simply Irresistible"), Matthew Lillard ("Thirteen Ghosts," "Summer Catch") and Linda Cardellini ("Legally Blonde," "Strangeland") - range from good to perfect as personified visualizations of their cartoon counterparts.

The titular pooch has been re-created in a cartoonish, computer-generated form (with perfect sounding vocalizations by Neil Fanning), and production designer Bill Boes ("Monkeybone," "Sleepy Hollow") has given the film the appropriately campy look.

Yet, just like a myna bird might sound like a human but wouldn't do well in a live debate with those he mimics, the film's faithful visual imitation of the cartoon only manages to carry it so far. In fact, that's only through the opening scene where viewers are likely to be amazed by the good to dead-on casting, makeup and costumes and vocal delivery that's on display.

After that, however, and thanks to a flat script and mediocre direction, the film falls flat on its face and becomes an excruciating test in one's patience of sitting through what amounts to little more than a retreading of elements from films such as "Ghostbusters," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and even "Charlie's Angels."

Not only does the film have the requisite scatological humor - namely a burping and farting contest that will probably have kids in stitches but others annoyed or disgusted - but the storytelling also simply stinks. It seems that the filmmakers were so intent on getting the look and sound right that they forgot to put much effort into delivering an entertaining or even okay story.

Unfortunately, they also pretty much neglected the film's one decent chance of being enjoyable and that's by poking fun at the old series. While some of that's present - comments made about Daphne's purple dress, Velma complaining about Fred never picking her as his partner, etc. - the film never hits the wickedly funny stride of the "Brady Bunch" films in lovingly skewering the source material.

Instead, we get the lame plot, flat jokes and material (the sexualizing of the three main female characters along with some veiled drug jokes) that's apparently aimed at former fans (now adults) but obviously isn't appropriate for many of the younger kids who will want to see this (the "Brady Bunch" films skewed to an older audience and thus their similar material wasn't as big of an issue).

As far as the performances are concerned, Lillard is the only one who stands out due to his uncanny impression of the cartoon character. Like the rest of the performers, however, he can't do much else with the role beyond that due to the weak writing and character development (or lack thereof).

Rowan Atkinson ("Rat Race," "Bean") and Isla Fisher ("The Pool," the TV miniseries "Attila the Hun") are similarly restrained in their limited roles, while Pamela Anderson and the pop group Sugar Ray make what only amount to nothing more than distracting cameo appearances.

Then there's Scooby. A real dog obviously wouldn't have been able to do what's required, while an animatronic puppet also would have been too limited. Thus, the filmmakers chose to create the pooch via computer graphics. Unfortunately, he doesn't look real and one can sense that he obviously wasn't on the set with the humans, thus lessening the believability of their interaction. Even the characters in the technically "old-fashioned" "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" film seemed more realistic

Of course, some will argue that none of it's supposed to be real since, after all, it's based on a cartoon and is geared for kids. Well, films such as "Shrek" and the various offerings from Pixar managed to entertain kids and still be terrific artistic accomplishments, so there's no reason this one couldn't have done the same. Without enough substance in the original cartoon series or adapted plot, the film simply doesn't have a chance of succeeding beyond re-creating the cartoon look in a live-action format. "Scooby-Doo" rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed June 8, 2002 / Posted June 14, 2002

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