Two news items from the past week have me recalling a movie from nearly a decade ago: Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. There was the announcement by Warner Bros. of a new animated feature based on the classic cartoon franchise, which is the obvious source of my considering Raja Gosnell’s live-action adaptations. Then there was the continued coverage of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, particularly the voice casting for its CG characters. That comic book movie is being helmed by James Gunn, who scripted both 2002’s Scooby-Doo and the 2004 sequel. I remember enjoying the latter a lot when it hit theaters, surprised that it was so much better than the misguided original and even more surprised that it was actually received worse by critics.
But could I defend Monsters Unleashed today? I revisited the movie this week in the hopes of doing so, but I don’t think I can. And this isn’t some case of where my love for something as a kid turns out to be terrible after all. That’s reserved for Howard the Duck (which I still love anyway). I saw Scooby-Doo 2 in my mid-20s. No, I wasn’t high. Perhaps I was simply relieved the movie was so tied back to the initial series, Scooby Doo: Where Are You?, with its call-back of ghosts and villains, and that it was an improvement over the first movie, which had had the balls to turn Scrappy Doo into a bad guy (and featured Sugar Ray — blech). Somehow that was enough to have me overlooking all the KFC advertising and easily dated soundtrack and all the fart humor — both of the faux “that was my leather outfit” jokes and the defeating a foe with nervous canine gas gag variety.
Ironically, a few years later when I was expecting to pan Gosnell’s live-action take on The Smurfs if there were any fart jokes, I kind of gave it a pass solely for the fact that it didn’t. And the fart joke in The Muppets was one of the big factors in my disappointment there. I think I probably don’t mind it if it comes from an animated dog that has been all about childish anthropomorphic shtick since the 1960s. Same goes for another ghost being temporarily thwarted with a kick to the groin, among a few other nods to de-masculation. While the animated cartoon might not have been so crude, this is how live-action cartoons are, unfortunately. Outside of that distinction, Monsters Unleashed does feel a lot like a three-dimensional rendering of a Where Are You? episode — as in it being live-action, not 3D, which hadn’t yet exploded in cinemas.
Other disappointments in the re-watch include the difference between how little Tim Blake Nelson is in the movie compared to how much he had appeared in my memory of the movie. I also had come away focused on the relative plausibility of the ghost mysteries, as in Scooby Doo was always about the supposed paranormal activity being explained as practical effects. There’s still more of that here than in the first movie, but Monsters Unleashed also primarily deals with a machine that supernaturally brings the classic creatures to “life.” Additionally, there is some magic via chemistry that transforms Scooby and Shaggy into different forms, including the latter being victim to the most disturbing man with a woman’s body gag since Hardbodies. Oh, and inexcusably there is one sort of homophobic joke at the end.
So what was and still is there to love? I think Matthew Lillard is absolutely perfect as Shaggy. I also love Linda Cardellini as Velma, even if she’s a little too take-the-glasses-off-and-she’s-hot take on the character in this sequel (it’s also a shame she’s given a heteronormative romantic plot, especially after Gunn tried to writer her as gay in the first movie). The self-aware tone is usually on the lighter but still amusing side, comparable to something by Joe Dante, especially Gremlins 2: The New Batch (the 10,000 Volt Ghost is now reminiscent of the electric Gremlin, while smart Scooby sounds like the smart Gremlin) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (which I think is highly underrated, as well) more than the over-parodying nature of the Brady Bunch movies of the ’90s. The cameo from the Tasmanian Devil almost seems thrown in by Dante himself.
The production design by Bill Boes and the rest of the art department’s work is also really great for this sort of movie — not unlike how designers like Michael Corenblith (The Grinch) and Alex McDowell (The Cat in the Hat; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) can manage to give an interesting live-action cartoon look to otherwise awful movies. Monsters Unleashed looks as it ought to all the way around, with even the CG rendering of the title character being far more tolerable than a lot of his kind.
On the subject of those Seuss adaptations, it’s interesting that there’s a new trend in moving these kinds of franchises back to full animation rather than the live-action/CG hybridization that had become a norm. Before the news about the next Scooby feature heading back to the drawing table, we heard about another How the Grinch Stole Christmas adaptation that also will be animated. And a stop-motion reboot of The Addams Family has been in development, as well. Maybe we’ll eventually see new all-animated features of The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Garfield and G.I. Joe eventually, too. There’s something seemingly purer but less fun about going that route, even if the novelty of live-action portrayals can get old after a while (as do the actors trying to continue to play ageless figures). Don’t worry, everything comes full-circle again, ultimately, as we’re seeing with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rebooting as live-action again following an animated one-shot.
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to think about the Scooby-Doo movies while anticipating Guardians of the Galaxy and thinking about the animated characters of Rocket Raccoon and Groot and how they’ll compare to the talking dog here. Gunn has also worked on two superhero movies previously (The Specials and Super), but it’s the team of young detectives of Mystery Inc. including a goofy animal role that sounds more in tune with the upcoming Avengers franchise installment. I think we can assume Rocket Raccoon won’t be farting flames at villains, though. Still, aside from the integrity seen so far with Marvel Studios and the passion of the fanbase, there’s barely a lot of separation between source material like Scooby Doo: Where Are You? and Guardians of the Galaxy comic books.
Alas, if we want to see something with Bradley Cooper and fart noises, we’ll have to settle on old Stella shorts: