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the cover of scooby doo: monsters unleashed, with the scooby gang in the center Image: Warner Bros Studios

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The live-action Scooby-Doo movies transcend the Scooby franchise

Their blend of kid humor and adult humor is specific and memorable

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Following on the heels of Trolls World Tour’s direct-to-video release, the new CGI Scooby-Doo feature film Scoob! lands on VOD on May 15. It’s a reimagining of the popular Saturday-morning cartoon series, featuring Amanda Seyfried, Gina Rodriguez, Zac Efron, and Will Forte as the voices of iconic animated mystery-solvers Daphne, Velma, Fred, and Shaggy. In their newest incarnation, they’re out to stop an impending “dogpocalypse” masterminded by fellow Hanna-Barbera character Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs).

That’s all fine and dandy, but every new Scooby-Doo movie is only following in the heels of the wildest theatrical adaptations of the beloved cartoon: the early-2000s live-action Scooby-Doo movies.

2002’s Scooby-Doo and 2004’s Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed are not, shall we say, objectively good. But they are a great time. They’re dressed up like kids’ movies, but they’re actually raunchy adult comedies packaged to fly under the PG rating, so they play with tropes appropriate to both age groups. Perhaps if the Scooby-Doo movies were totally allowed to be early-2000s rowdy comedies, they would’ve been forgettable. Perhaps if they’d just been fun kids’ flicks, they’d just be a nostalgia fest. But the fact that they did their utter best to be both of those things at once makes them memorable in a very specific way.

the scooby gang in a vacation ensemble Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The 2002 Scooby-Doo, penned by Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director James Gunn and directed by Raja Gosnell, takes place two years after the mystery-solving gang split up. Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini), Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Shaggy (Matthew Lillard), and Scooby are all invited to a mysterious vacation getaway called Spooky Island. Resort mogul Emile Mondavarious (Rowan Atkinson) wants them to investigate “brainwashed” tourists, but none of them know the others are invited as well. Hijinks ensue.

Monsters Unleashed, also from Gunn and Gosnell, picks up some time after the first, after the gang gets back together and a museum opens in their honor, with relics from criminals they’ve apprehended. But when the costumes start disappearing and coming to life — and the media starts twisting the Scooby gang’s words to make them seem like the bad guys — they have to figure out what’s going on.

Watching these movies as a child, you’re probably going to miss all the marijuana references and raunchy jokes. As a kid, you aren’t seeing these characters as Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Daphne’s purple go-go boots, or Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks in Velma’s distinctive orange turtleneck. It’s just Daphne kicking ass, and Velma, complete with her signature bowl-cut hair. The irony that Sarah Michelle Gellar is being told she’s too girly to fight monsters when her best-known role was a demon slayer will go right over the heads of most 6-year-olds.

daphne and velma on vacation in the 2002 Scooby Doo movie Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Part of the joy of watching these movies as a kid is the garish visual elements. The production design didn’t try to make over the Scooby-Doo cartoons to fit into a realistic world, they just made a physical world that looks as cartoonish as possible. The Mystery Machine doesn’t get a gritty makeover. It’s still lime-green and turquoise, with blobby orange letters. The characters, much like their cartoon counterparts, dress exclusively in one or two colors. Daphne’s always in purple, Velma’s in orange, with the boys in green and blue. The CG Scooby-Doo isn’t trying to be real; it’s a stylized cartoon, which means the dog doesn’t look janky and outdated today. (Unlike some of the CG monsters, which look absurdly fake.)

The real-world cartoon aesthetic extends to the story logic. Both these films are joyous, wacky, logic-defying rides. They both end with the signature “Aha! This bad guy was secretly someone else in disguise!” plot element that the cartoon relied on, except that because it’s happening in live-action, the reveals manifest in hilariously absurd ways. The beauty is that neither movie tries to make any sense of just how these impossible disguises have been pulled off. The movie’s logic just accepts that, yes, Scrappy-Doo was piloting Rowan Atkinson’s body like he was a flesh mecha. What of it?

shaggy and scooby Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Other overused gags from the show are played with and turned into plot points. Fred is the leader (who takes credit for Velma’s plans), Daphne always gets kidnapped, and Scooby and Shaggy run away at the slightest hint of a scare. Why does Velma leave the group? She’s frustrated that Fred keeps taking all the credit. What does Daphne do during their hiatus? She learns self-defense. Why are Scooby and Shaggy reluctant to accept an all-expenses paid vacation to Spooky Island? They’ve learned in their time as sleuths to stay away from any place with “spooky” in its name. The movies acknowledge the tired tropes and characterizations that the show fell into, not only paying tribute to the original cartoon, but also reinventing the elements in fresh forms.

If Scooby-Doo and Monsters Unleashed had just been over-the-top kids’ movies, perhaps they would’ve joined a pantheon of adventure-comedy flicks geared toward younger audiences, like Spy Kids. But the element of these movies that makes them particularly memorable all these years later is that they feel like rowdy turn-of-the-millennium comedies, like EuroTrip. Kids’ movies regularly squeeze innuendo and more adult jokes under the radar, but the live-action Scooby-Doo duology goes so much further, it feels like it could be R-rated with a few simple tweaks.

The very setup of the 2002 Scooby-Doo feels like it comes right out of a college sex comedy. The gang heads to an island destination specifically designed for wild spring breakers. It’s full of college kids wanting to let loose and party — except without the drugs, sex, alcohol, and whatever else one would typically expect from an island destination specifically designed for wild spring breakers. The film doesn’t just play with the cartoon’s tired tropes, it also uses the setting of a rowdy R-rated college comedy as a playground.

The movie doesn’t entirely sanitize the randy elements — it just disguises the weed references and raunchy jokes enough that they may not sink in until you’re rewatching the films as an adult, whilst intoxicated in whatever way you prefer. Some highlights: The first glimpse of Shaggy and Scooby after the two-year time-skip throws them in a smoke-filled van — but they’re just grilling eggplant burgers, of course. Shaggy meets his love interest, a girl named Mary Jane, and tells her that’s his favorite name.

At one point in the first movie, the main cast switches bodies in a Freaky Friday-esque soul-swap, and the second thought Fred has when in Daphne’s body is that he can look at himself in the mirror naked. And while the second movie moves away from the party-island setting, it still has its fair share of innuendo. Shaggy downs a bunch of potions, grows boobs, and checks himself out in the mirror. (He also turns buff, which helped fuel the Powerful Shaggy meme years later). After getting a makeover for an upcoming date, Velma comes down the stairs in a pleather jumpsuit, huskily asking Seth Green’s character, “Who’s your mommy?”

Scoob! is just the latest movie in the Scooby-Doo franchise, which has had multiple spinoffs, reboots, animated movies, and made-for-television live-action flicks since the cartoon debuted in 1969. But the peculiar fusion of cartoonish elements and adult-themed comedy, along with the subversion of known tropes in both the original show and the genres the movie tried to emulate, all add up to put the early 2000s live-action Scooby-Doo films in a league of their own. These aren’t just adaptations — they’re loving re-inventions of the cartoon, which makes them stand out from the rest.

Scooby-Doo and Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed are available to rent on Amazon Prime.

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