Where the screen version of Spider-Man (2002) respectfully takes us back to the mythic origins of its superhero, this film of a television cartoon doesn't bother to explain anything to the uninitiated.
Within the first two minutes, a typical adventure starring Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) comes to a furious conclusion. Then the gang breaks up amid a storm of allegations and accusations. Shaggy heads off into the sunset with his special friend, a talking dog named Scooby-Doo.
One belated flashback reassures any confused viewer that this team once went around solving mysteries. When all its scattered members are mysteriously called to a haunted, theme-park island, the mystery element is quickly supplemented by the complete, historic iconography of the horror genre: haunted castle, spirits, monsters, voodoo trances.
This is essentially entertainment for kids, but it strains to amuse adults as well. Unlike director Raja Gosnell's best film, Never Been Kissed (1999), Scooby-Doo fumbles the exacting Hollywood art of aiming a single piece of entertainment at several different audiences.
For instance, the story bursts with allusions to drug culture (such as the song "Pass the Dutchie") that never manage to form a coherent line of subversive humour.
The casting is also something of a dog's dinner. Rowan Atkinson is allowed to do very little except mumble like a nutty professor and then arch his eyebrows in sinister fashion. Whether the appearance of Nicholas Hope was intended as a sly reference to Australia's own Bad Boy Bubby (1994) is likely to remain a mystery.
The latest cliché in the Hollywood trade papers is female empowerment – a token dash of pop feminism applied to any story, whether it is pertinent or not. Gellar has taken every public opportunity to proclaim that Daphne's personal journey in this film is to "find her voice" and no longer be simply a "damsel in distress".
This political lesson is a trifle wasted in a movie where neither character nor plot count for much – but what the heck, Daphne gets to deliver some fine, Buffy-style kicks to the bad guys.
Scooby-Doo is one of those fast and loose films that resemble a loud, blinking, spinning toy. Bodies change their size and identities are swapped with merry abandon, so the fact that one of the characters is an elaborate special effect does not disturb the flow.
Some jokes work (such as an elaborate burp-and-fart contest between man and dog) and many do not. Strangely, the best laughs belong to two minor characters who also bear the regal name of Doo: the pugnaciously vulgar mutt Scrappy-Doo, and a zombified extra named Melvin Doo.
MORE Gosnell: Big Momma's House
© Adrian Martin June 2002