They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
In June of 2002, Hanna-Barbera’s meddling kids and stupid dog made their big-screen debut with the release of Scooby-Doo. The live-action take on the popular cartoon was designed to be a blockbuster hit with a cast of young stars (Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard, and Linda Cardellini) and big-budget special effects. To the film’s credit, it fared quite well at the box office, winning its opening weekend and grossing just south of $276 million when all was said and done. This was good enough to place the film as the fifteenth most successful of the year.
I was 16 at the time and have fond memories of seeing Scooby-Doo that opening weekend. As a teenager that had grown up watching re-runs of the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! animated series, the adaptation (penned by James Gunn) delivered exactly what I wanted. It’s a stupid, goofy mystery movie with a splash of subtle adult humor and mostly bad but undoubtedly charming CGI. The kicker is the franchise’s iconic theme song performed by early-2000s pop-punk darlings MxPx.
While the franchise has never really stopped since its inception in 1969, the film’s financial success did help give it an extra boost, spawning a direct sequel (2004’s Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed) and ushering in a new wave of television shows. With Mystery Inc.’s latest adventure, the animated feature Scoob!, now hitting theaters VOD, we revisit what critics had to say about the gang’s first theatrical foray.
Claudia Puig opened up her review in USA Today by calling Scooby-Doo “a classic example of a movie that didn’t need to be made.” Puig wasn’t impressed with most of the cast, particularly Prinze, whom she said “brings [Fred] no charisma” while seemingly “just going through the motions.” On the flip side, she did praise Lillard for bringing “his spacey, ultra-mellow cartoon character to life” and having fun while doing so.
William Arnold, writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, echoed similar sentiment with regards to Lillard, saying the actor “throws himself into the part with a comic fearlessness” and “perfectly recreates the cheerful, whiny voice.” Lillard’s performance as Shaggy alone wasn’t enough, however, to lift the movie beyond its “bad-taste humor” and “strangely unimpressive” computer-animated Scooby.
The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott couldn’t get past the “obnoxious special effects” and a script that he called a “violation of everything the old series stood for.” While he didn’t consider them good enough to save the film, Scott was pleased with the cast as a whole, and unlike other reviewers, he singled out Prinze as the best of the bunch, calling Fred Jones the “role he was surely born to play.” Ultimately, Scott concluded that the film would satisfy “connoisseurs of ridiculous, throwaway pop-cultural magic,” but “is not quite worth the price of a ticket.”
In his one-star, one-paragraph review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers questioned whether or not the film was truly live-action because, as he put it, the “blond wig on star Freddie Prinze Jr. is morgue-ready.” Travers was also skeptical about Scooby being the only thing computer-generated in the film, saying “nothing human could have produced a script with emotions as plastic as co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar’s go-go boots.”
No one disliked Scooby-Doo more than Nathan Rabin of the AV Club. He wrote that the film “has virtually nothing to offer but weak doses of Gen-X nostalgia.” While most critics found some joy with the cast, Rabin described them as “costumes in search of characters,” saying they’re “even less animated than their television counterparts.” He considered CGI Scoob to be the best part, but still found him “more disturbing than lovable.” To hammer home his disdain, Rabin called Scooby-Doo both a “Battlefield Earth-level miscalculation” and “a weak Saturday Night Live parody blown up.”
Joe Leydon of Variety, wrote positively of the film, calling it “fast, frenetic and funny enough to amuse both new fans and longtime devotees of the characters.” Leydon praised the visual effects for seamlessly blending live-action and animation, allowing “the actors to persuasively interact with Scooby-Doo.”
Undoubtedly the strangest review for Scooby-Doo was written in The Washington Post by Hank Stuever. His take contains a brief rundown of his thirty-year history watching the franchise, including mention of a college paper he wrote about how the original show was a “metaphor for the sexual revolution” and a suggestion that maybe the series has always been “subliminally black.” As for the film, Stuever wrote that it is “awful in a wonderfully crass, burp-and-flatulate kind of way” and declared Lillard as the star, “turning in a highly accurate and intensely sublime performance.”
Stuever also wrote that the film “falls far short of becoming the Blazing Saddles of Generations X, Y, and Z.” That’s certainly true, Scooby-Doo is no Blazing Saddles, but why anyone would expect such a thing boggles my mind. Maybe Stuever reached this thought process after having one too many Scooby Snacks.