Wait, is it time for mid-'90s nostalgia already? "Scooby-Doo" feels like the kind of goofball '70s tribute that was current maybe six or seven years ago. I'm thinking, like, Betty Thomas' 1995 "The Brady Bunch Movie," which is still well worth renting if you're having a few, um, herbal cocktails with pals on a Saturday night. This long-awaited big-screen appearance by the Scoobster -- scripted by James Gunn with the blessing of legendary cartoon creators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera -- tries to walk that same well-worn line of simultaneously spoofing a classic TV series and remaining true to its spirit.
As directed by Raja Gosnell ("Big Momma's House," "Home Alone 3"), "Scooby-Doo" is basically an idiotic fun-house ride from beginning to end, a veritable forest of celebrity in-jokes, cheap gags, pointless film-school references and gratuitous Pamela Anderson appearances. (I guess there's no such thing as a non-gratuitous Pamela Anderson appearance, but let's keep moving.) Any thinking, reasoning human being with an appreciation for cinema would reject it as the vilest trash. Needless to say, it cracked me up the whole way.
Much of the fun here, of course, is watching cardboard-thin Hollywood celebs like star couple Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar inhabit the cardboard-thin characters of the Scooby gang, which is, as aficionados know, not actually called the Scooby gang (à la "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") but rather Mystery Inc. This is the method taught in the Elizabeth Hurley school of acting: If you happen to be a vapid idiot, always play one in the movies and audiences will love you for your self-mocking sense of fun.
Prinze has never been more enjoyable than as Fred, ascot-sporting leader of the now disbanded Mystery Inc., who has left his Teen Beat cover-boy past behind and is now a motivational speaker (and the author of the book "Fred on Fred"). Beautiful Daphne (Gellar) has taken martial arts training in preparation for some Buffy-esque ass-kicking, although she still wears all-magenta outfits accessorized with seven matching pieces of luggage. Velma (Linda Cardellini, doing her best to impersonate Janeane Garofalo, who I guess was fractionally too old or too talented for this role) works at NASA. And of course, of course, Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby are still best pals, living at the beach in the gang's psychedelic painted van, with smoke billowing through the sunroof. (They're grilling eggplant burgers, silly!)
Some actors are destined for certain roles. Olivier, Hamlet. Marlon Brando, Stanley Kowalski. Don Johnson, Nash Bridges. Lillard, who stole the show as the dudealicious villain in the original "Scream" and has saved various crappy movies, from "She's All That" to "Thir13een Ghosts," from being completely unwatchable, is Norville "Shaggy" Rogers. He has the inadequate facial hair, the scratchy, adenoidal voice, the permanently bewildered doofus expression. He has the "Zoinks!" Lillard is able to play the dumbest scripts with a conviction that lends them at least the appearance of meaning. During a scene late in the film when he's trying to rescue a blissfully unaware Scooby from being sacrificed by some kind of monster cannibal Tiki-god cult, Lillard's disquisition on friendship felt so sincere it brought tears to my eyes.
Furthermore, as digitally created cartoon Great Dane-Labrador-Doberman mutts go, this film's Scooby is terrific. I mean, it's not like there's some real-world model to compare Scooby against, but even though the voice (by Scott Innes) doesn't sound quite right to me, his sweet nature, naïveté, boundless appetite for Scooby snacks and cowardly-noble heroism have survived intact. As the Tiki-cult people understand all too well, Scooby is a pure soul. Besides, when the plot requires him to wear a grandma dress (never mind why), he looks more like a woman than Martin Lawrence did in "Big Momma's House."
So the Mystery Inc. gang is reunited, naturally enough, to investigate strange occurrences at a haunted amusement park, to which they are summoned by Emile Mondavarious (the expertly slithery Rowan Atkinson), who is, as Velma puts it, "the reclusive owner of Spooky Island." Shaggy announces that he and Scooby will no longer venture anywhere whose name includes the words Spooky, Haunted, Terror or Horror, but you know how that goes. You have to hope that the fact that Fred, Daphne, Velma, et al., leave home on a plane and arrive at Spooky Island on a boat is deliberate. Either way it's a subtle clue that things are not quite right.
The teenagers who show up to get wild on Spooky Island are being rendered into mindless zombies who talk in 2002 faux hip-hop lingo, which of course confuses our heroes and creates the opportunity for somebody to greet Scooby by saying, "What up, dog?" Possibly the park was built on a land of ancient demons: "While you party, they plot their revenge!" explains some guy in "Survivor" face paint. Then we get little snippets of grotesquerie ripped off from David Lynch, David Cronenberg and even Peter Greenaway. And we see an evil magic box right out of the "Hellraiser" movies ("Hmm," says Velma, "these inscriptions are reminiscent of ancient pandaemonist texts") and overgrown versions of the "Gremlins" critters.
OK, so the flatulence contest between Shaggy and Scooby is a little lowbrow even for me. (On the other hand, flatulence inside a medieval suit of armor, complete with resonant sound effects -- now that's brilliant.) But for the most part I laughed myself sick through the four-wheelin' chase scenes, the teach-yourself-English video for alien monsters, and Scooby's attempts to convince Shaggy that his new girlfriend is really a hideous demon. How will Mystery Inc. adapt to facing genuine ghoulies and ghosties? (As Fred observes, "Our area of expertise is nut jobs in Halloween masks.") Well, I won't reveal any more of the dark plot, but I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids.