Saturday, October 26, 2019

Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island

In the 21 years since Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, the Scooby-Doo franchise has managed to remain stable enough for yearly direct-to-video films and the occasional new series to help it stay relevant, including Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated and Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! To celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Scooby-Doo, Warner Bros. released Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island, itself a direct sequel to Zombie Island. Since I liked the original film and had noticed from afar how goofy the DTV films had become, my curiosity was piqued and I wondered how they would try to follow up such a classic piece of Scooby-Doo media. About 80 minutes later, it seems that they made an attempt, but still fell far below the bar.

A few months after the events of Scooby-Doo! and the Curse of the 13th Ghost, Mystery, Inc. has been forced to retire from solving mysteries and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) makes Fred (Frank Welker), Daphne (Grey Griffin) and Velma (Kate Micucci) promise not to solve any more mysteries, since he and Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker) are tired of being used as bait. Shaggy then wins a trip to a tropical paradise where he can bring the rest of the gang along with him. On their way to an island, their surroundings are suspiciously non-tropical and they’re told by the captain that zombies inhabit the island. When they arrive, they ignore the warnings to turn back and find themselves at the Moonstar Hotel. While inside, the gang’s attempts to relax and not solve any mysteries are interrupted by the arrival of a horde of zombies.

When I saw “Zombie Island” in the title, it immediately raised my expectations about the kind of film this would be. This continued into the title sequence, which gave the impression that Return to Zombie Island would honor the legacy of the original by returning to its darker and more mature atmosphere, where the monsters were real and Mystery, Inc. were in real danger of dying. Here, however, the film returns to the generally sillier atmosphere of most of the Scooby-Doo franchise, including a lot of unsubtle jokes, slapstick comedy, visual gags and the near-absence of real supernatural threats. While I did laugh a few times, I found myself missing the darker aspects of Zombie Island that kept that movie interesting.

Despite the inclusion of zombies, Return to Zombie Island
is nowhere near as dark as the original.

What really didn’t help were the unnecessary retcons. In Zombie Island, the members of Mystery Inc. had all become adults with their own career paths and had reunited to more or less relive their days solving mysteries as teenagers. There is a sequence in this film where they recapped the events of Zombie Island, which is all well and good, but then the recap has the audacity to imply that they were still teenagers during that time, a decision I had a hard time wrestling with. Later on, there also seemed to be an effort by Velma to retcon the “real monsters” aspect of the original out of existence, but it’s hard to determine if this was a sincere effort to remove the stakes from the original or if Velma just somehow didn’t accept that the zombies and cat people were real. Then there are references that feel out of place, including one to actress Greta Garbo and a cameo by Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) of all people.

Putting this aside, however, the plot still doesn’t make much sense. Without giving too much away, the film is a convoluted mess of storylines that feel like they’ll build up to something bigger, only for the climax, and even some points beforehand, to actively deflate any and all semblance of tension. There’s even one truly mysterious element, one real monster, that never gets resolved. There’s a bit of dialogue that offhandedly mentions having enough film footage for a sequel or trilogy, which I now wonder if the writers had intended to mean they’d need a third entry to properly resolve anything. Not only is this bad writing, but so is a plotline involving Fred selling the Mystery Machine and the Sheriff forcing Mystery, Inc. to retire from mystery-solving. From my research after the movie, it seems that this continued a plotline from Scooby-Doo! and the Curse of the 13th Ghost, the previous DTV film, which in itself was written as a finale to the unresolved The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo series. If you hadn’t seen that film, then chances are you’ll be as lost as I was.

Of course, there are certain stylistic changes that come with the more light-hearted direction of the film. Compared to the original, the colors are brighter, the animation uses the gang in their “evergreen” character models and the film is riddled with cartoon sound effects. The actual animation itself is of great quality, but it felt more cartoony and exaggerated than the more realistic take on the characters and setting in the original. The soundtrack also feeds into this, as “Good Old Days” and “Sweet As Candy (Pure As Gold)”, written by Andy Sturmer and performed by Xanthius Bod, are more Pop-oriented and feel like non-sequiturs to the action, especially the latter. This is, of course, in contrast to the punchier Alternative sound and more fitting use of “It’s Terror Time Again” from Zombie Island.

Mystery, Inc. return to their evergreen designs for the sequel;
LR: Shaggy Rogers (Matthew Lillard), Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker),
Daphne Blake (Grey Griffin), Velma Dinkley (Kate Micucci), Fred Jones (Frank Welker).

The voice acting isn’t bad, but I personally question casting Kate Micucci as Velma. It’s not that she’s bad, far from it, but she seems to not have much range, since she sounds very close here to her role as Webby Vanderquack from DuckTales (2017), who has a similar obsession with solving mysteries.

Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island is a film of wasted potential. Its story could’ve benefitted from a more focused plot and higher stakes with a more threatening villain. The general quality of the movie would be dramatically improved if it had stronger ties to the continuity of the original and stayed truer to its atmosphere. If you loved Zombie Island, I would tell you to steer clear of this sequel, unless of course you’re a die hard Scooby-Doo fan who just has to see it all.

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