Monday, July 12, 2010

Off-topic: The new cartoon series Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is really good

Tonight was the official debut of Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated on Cartoon Network.

There have been two previous attempts to relaunch a Scooby-Doo television series since the 2002 live-action movie, and both of them failed to either duplicate the movie’s (somewhat confused) attempt to address an all-ages audience or reinvent the original cartoon formula in order to produce an engaging all-ages show.

In other words, both attempts were pretty damn boring to me as a grown-up (and yeah, I know, not necessarily part of the intended audience anyway) and, like the bulk of Scooby-Doo cartoons, just plain not very good.

2002’s What’s New Scooby-Doo? pretty closely followed the movie and string of direct-to-DVD animated movies in attempting to give Fred, Daphne and Velma personalities and more to do than simply play straight men (straight people?) to Shaggy and Scooby (while also slightly updating their wardrobes). But it hewed too closely to the original formula, close enough to have all of the original incarnation’s flaws. (Pretty decent radio pop rock theme song by Simple Plan, though!)

2006’s Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue was a more radical departure, probably the most radical departure from the original formula...with the possible exception of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo). In it, completely redesigned versions of Shaggy and Scooby mansion-sit for Shaggy’s in-hiding millionaire genius inventor uncle, while protecting his invention from an evil criminal organization lead by a character who mixes elements of Dr. Evil, Hitler and Bruce Timm into his conception. They are aided by a transforming Mystery Machine, a malfunctioning robot butler, and special Scooby-Snacks that give Scoob super-powers. It’s fairly decent, but pretty far removed form the original concept of the show and characters. I did love the design though, and there’s a great title sequence featuring a theme by Mark Mothersbaugh (!).

Well, I guess the third time is a charm, because judging solely by the first episode, “The Beware The Beast From Below,” new series Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is the best incarnation of Scooby-Doo yet.

The series is set in the gang’s new home town of Crystal Cove, “The Most Haunted Place On Earth,” a small town whose inhabitants have long since embraced the various “monsters” that have plagued them over the years (Captain Cutler, Miner ‘49er, etc), since they make for an appealing tourist attraction.

They therefore resent Mystery Inc., the name Shaggy and company’s youth gang eventually, retroactively went by, for exposing so many seemingly paranormal events as the work of crooks. Well, that’s one of the reasons they resent them.

The episode opens with the gang thrown in jail by the sheriff, voiced by Patrick Warburton, who calls their parents, and there’s a neat sequence where we meet all of their families, and mystery-solving is portrayed a peculiar teenage vice the concerned parents want their kids to give up.

For the Dinkley family, belief in the paranormal vs. mystery solving is a generation gap thing. Fred’s dad is the mayor (Voiced by Gary Cole!). Shaggy’s parents tell him “we’re worried about this mystery phase you’re going through,” but seem less concerned with he and his dog stuffing pancakes into one another’s mouths. Daphne tells her parents, “We’re just solving mysteries! All the kids are doing it!”

They get another opportunity to do so on the way to school the next day, when some sort of scary slime-monster emerges from a manhole, manhandles (slime-monster handles?) the Mystery Machine, and disappears.

It eventually turns out that monster is a man in a mask, but it’s designed and portrayed so that whether this was going to be a Scooby vs. the supernatural or Scooby vs. costumed crooks type of series was up in the air for a while (Cues are taken from horror movies in several instances though; in the way certain scenes are edited, if not content).

What differentiates the format from the traditional one is that there is also an ongoing mystery plot centered around the city and, presumably, the “Curse of Crystal Cove” mentioned in the first few moments. Clues to this include a strange locket found underground and a mysterious call from someone calling himself “Mr. E” and sounding like Lewis Black (voiced by Lewis Black!).

There are also several inter-character sub-plots, a narrative sophistication that seems somewhat alien to the world of Scooby cartoons (But welcome! Welcome!).

Daphne has a crush of Fred (“He’s like one of those geniuses that no one understands until they’re dead,” she dreamily tells her parents, “He sees things different, and he want to catch those different things in his traps…”), but dim-witted Fred never notices, as his interests start and stop at solving mysteries and building Rube Goldberg-esque traps.

Shaggy and Velma are dating, although they’re the only two who know it—Shaggy’s afraid to break the news to Scooby, and thus forbids Velma from telling one until Shaggy can figure out how to let his dog know that there’s someone else in his life. Velma, obviously, bristles at playing second fiddle to a Great Dane, as great as this particular one may be.

The most readily apparent difference between this series and previous Scooby-Doos is the design. The most dated aspects—the wardrobes—remain barely changed. Fred’s even still rocking that neck scarf. It’s interesting to note that they’ve been wearing those outfits so long now that Fred looks like he’s wearing a vintage outfit now. Forty years is long enough for their original costumes to go out of style and come back in, I guess (It’s worth noting too that everyone in Crystal Cove wears similarly vintage outfits; I’d even suspect the series were set in the past, if not for some of the dialogue).

The characters have slightly smaller eyes (with the exception of Daphne, who gets huge violet saucers) and generally have sharper edges and a more angular look. They’re also all a bit more exaggerated from the late sixties/early seventies Hanna-Barbera house look. (The animation in general, it should go without saying, is of infinitely better quality—quicker, cleaner, sharper and generally more sophisticated).

The characters who have changed the least are Shaggy and Scooby, whose designs are practically unchanged. The one who has changed the most is definitely Velma, who adds cute little bows to her hair, who has lost enough pounds that she’s now slim, almost svelte, and who has more prominent breasts. Velma is now hot, as hard as it is for someone who grew up with Old School Velma to admit (I blame Linda Cardellini, for being hot; that seems to be the start of the trend of de-dowdification and gradual enhottening of Velma).

(By the way, you can see all of the character designs of the five principals by clicking on their faces on Cartoon Network’s mini-site for the show)

The vocal work is top-notch as well. I’ve already mentioned a few of the celebrity voice actors involved—Gary Cole, Patrick Warburton, Lewis Black—but you’ve also got Vivica A. Fox as the gang’s friend Angel Dynamite at hangout radio station KGHOUL, Shaggy originator Casey Kasem as Shag’s father Samuel and, perhaps most excitingly, Matthew Lillard as Shaggy.

Lillard’s Shaggy was by far the best part of the two live-action films (which I liked a lot more than a lot of others, I’m sure; the casting and acting of the principals was all pretty good, I thought, and Lillard’s especially), and if anyone other than Kasem is going to play Shaggy, you can’t ask for a better person than Lillard (I do worry about what this says about the state of Lillard’s career though, if he’s voicing a cartoon instead of, I don’t know, starring as the Riddler in Nolan’s Darker Knight or playing opposite of Kate Winslet in some Oscar bait flick).

Rounding out the stars are Grey DeLisle reprising Daphne, Frank Welker reprising both Scooby and Fred and Mindy Cohn reprising Velma.

I generally check out each new incarnation of Scooby-Doo out of the curiosity born out of how much Little Caleb enjoyed repeats of the show and my lingering interest in the animation field, but Mystery Incorporated looks like it’s going to be the first Scooby-Doo cartoon I’m going to seek out to watch just because I find it actively engaging and entertaining.


I guess the debut of the new show explains why DC is canceling their Scooby-Doo comic next month and launching a brand-new title, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, in September. Artist Scott Gross’ cover image doesn’t suggest that the new series will reflect the visual direction of the show though, nor does the solicitation text suggest that the new comic will be deviating from the traveling-the-world-finding-mysteries format of the comic. But they will be searching out a real (as-in-long-on-the-radar-of-cryptozoologists-“real”) monster—Ogopogo!


Lazarus Lupin said...

As a big fan of Velma I have to say I like the new design (though I didn't think there was a thing wrong with the old one), and lewis black? Good Lord, they might be on to something! And if the people who holds the rights to these things read this: Please answer my prayer and have Lewis Black do Snidely Whiplash in a new version of "Stop that pidgeon."

Lazarus Lupin
Arts and Review

Mark Pellegrini said...

I was really surprised with it, too. The "soft reboot" approach was a little off-putting at first, and I was especially resistant to the remaning of their hometown from Coolsville to Crystal Cove, but I got over it pretty quick and absolutely loved the episode.

I wrote a detailed summary of my first impression here:

"Mystery Incorporated" seems like a Scooby show written for the "Ben 10" crowd, with snappier jokes and hugher quality animation that seems aimed at an older audience than typical Scooby material.

I'm not a "hardcore" Scooby fan, but I'll make it a point to keep up with the show. It definately had me hooked after one episode.