You have to give Warner Bros. points for bravery. First it took "Harry Potter," one of the most popular kids' book series in the world, and dared to give it a definitive look, hoping it would live up to the expectations of millions of readers. Now it's taking a cartoon character that has been known and loved by three generations of kids and putting him into live action ... sort of.
The big-screen, big-budget ($80 million-plus) "Scooby-Doo," which opens June 14, renders the cowardly, lovable ghostbusting Great Dane in quasi-realistic computer animation in a live-action setting. Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini and Matthew Lillard play Scooby's human pals: stalwart Fred Jones, beautiful Daphne Blake, brainy Velma Dinkley and grungy Shaggy Rogers, respectively. Although the formula of digital cartooning with live action has been used before for 1995's "Casper," which was a commercial hit, and 2000's "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," which wasn't, the studio contends that comparisons with other films are irrelevant.
Why? Because there's just something about Scooby.
"Everybody grew up with Scooby-Doo," says Charles Roven, who produced the film with partner Richard Suckle. "I grew up with Scooby-Doo. My daughter, who is 15, grew up with Scooby-Doo, and I know a lot of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who grew up with Scooby-Doo."
For the benefit of those who might have managed to grow up without him, Scooby debuted in 1969 in the Saturday-morning series "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!," which was created and produced by Hanna-Barbera. Each week, Scooby and the gang--known collectively as Mystery Inc.--traveled around in a flower-power van dubbed the Mystery Machine. They followed clues, solved cases, chased ghosts and monsters, and invariably revealed them to be disguised human criminals who would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids.
Over the next three decades, Scooby was featured in a record 18 spinoff series (including one that paired the gang with guest stars such as Sonny & Cher and the Harlem Globetrotters), four TV movies and three video features, making him among the most durable cartoon characters.
Roven became interested in developing a live-action treatment of Scooby in 1994, four years before Time Warner acquired Turner, which owned Hanna-Barbera, and identified Scooby as one of the animation company's most marketable characters. Mike Myers was briefly attached to the project, hoping to play Scooby's best bud, Shaggy. By decade's end, the combination of Scooby's popularity on the Cartoon Network, by then a Time Warner company; the delivery of an acceptable script; and technological advancements that for the first time made a digitally animated Scooby viable, put the project on the fast track. Filming began in February 2001 at Warner Roadshow Studios in Queensland, Australia.
The PG-rated film is aimed at every generation of Scooby-watchers, including those who weren't even born when its development began. "Our primary audience are kids 6 to 12 and their parents," says Dawn Taubin, president of domestic marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures, "but all of our information shows us that there is a large group of [teens] and even college students who have a strong affection for Scooby."
Adds Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide production: "Unlike a lot of Saturday-morning television, I think 'Scooby' has a hipper, cooler vibe to it. Hanna-Barbera instilled it with something that everybody up through high school enjoys." The filmmakers were eager to run with that vibe, tweaking the characters for a more sophisticated kid audience than the one of 30 years ago. "The [original] series painted very specific characteristics onto each character, but it did not get behind their struggle to either overcome or accentuate those," Di Bonaventura says. "We get behind them either to make fun of them, accentuate them or get emotionally involved in them."
Scripted by James Gunn and directed by Raja Gosnell, "Scooby-Doo" finds the gang investigating weird goings-on at Spooky Island, a tropical spring break hangout for teens run by a man named Mondavarious (played by Rowan Atkinson of "Mr. Bean" fame). To anyone familiar with "Scooby-Doo," the story line sounds like deja vu all over again. But there is a twist: Long-simmering resentments and personality conflicts, particularly between Fred and Daphne, have torn the group apart (and hipper "Scooby" fans know the joke is that Prinze and Gellar, who play Fred and Daphne, are engaged). Before they can hope to catch the villain, the former friends first have to resolve their conflicts.
While Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy reveal more complex human emotions, Scooby has likewise found his inner dog. "In certain cases, he does exhibit more natural characteristics that a [real] dog might exhibit," Roven says, "but whatever Scooby does, we wanted to make sure he did it with his Scooby-ness."