Saturday, May 30, 2020

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

After a viewing of Scooby-Doo (2002), we noticed that the sequel, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, was also available for free streaming and decided we may as well give it a watch. Like the previous film, I remember seeing ads for it at the time, but nine-year-old me had no interest. Watching it now, we noticed immediate improvements over the original and I think I might’ve liked it as a kid, but it’s still not a great film.

Mystery Inc., comprised of Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini), Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby-Doo (Neil Fanning), attend the opening of an exhibition at the Coolsonian Criminology Museum commemorating their past cases with monster costumes on display. However, a villain known as the Evil Masked Figure (Scott McNeil) appears and steals two costumes with a reanimated Pterodactyl Ghost. The gang suffers a humiliating loss, punctuated by a smear campaign against them by journalist Heather Jaspar Howe (Alicia Silverstone). They conclude that an old villain must be behind it and investigate Jeremiah Wickles (Peter Boyle), portrayer of the Black Knight Ghost and former cell mate of the late Jonathan Jacobo (Tim Blake Nelson), former portrayer of the Pterodactyl Ghost.

Mystery Inc. are back on the case; L-R: Scooby-Doo (Neil Fanning),
Shaggy (Matthew Lillard), Velma (Linda Cardellini),
Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar)

The most immediately noticeable change from the previous film is a more cartoony tone and a stricter faithfulness to the original series, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! This faithfulness is so strict, in fact, that it at times seems to assume the audience is already familiar with it. There’s no shortage of references to past villains from this series and the plot acts like the gang’s exploits from that point in time had happened. This didn’t bother me as much, since I had actually seen some amount of Where Are You!, but I’m aware that non-fans jumping into this film first would find the cavalcade of references confusing. On the upside, however, it does completely ignore the events of Scooby-Doo (2002) in the process.

On its own merits, the story isn’t spectacular, but there are some things I enjoyed. I liked that Mystery Inc. returned to their classic characterizations and that the film did a decent job of keeping the identity of the villain a mystery, even when the stars seem to have aligned. There’s also one scene in particular that felt more relevant now than it ever did back then, specifically the one where Heather Jaspar Howe manipulates a soundbite of Fred. When Fred attempts to call her out on trying to twist things to make it look like “I think Coolsville sucks,” her report has him simply say, “I think Coolsville sucks” out of context, as though he said it intentionally.

This scene proves itself relevant now more than ever.

Compared to the previous film, the humor is also better. It tones down the juvenile antics and in spite of the increased slapstick, there were more moments that got a genuine laugh out of me, including the aforementioned “I think Coolsville sucks” scene. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop some toilet humor from slipping through, including a bit where Scooby-Doo and Shaggy weaponize their farts to defeat one of the monsters.

This brings me to some of the more subpar aspects of the film’s storytelling. For thing, Monsters Unleashed commits the same sin as its predecessor by having one scene that stops the plot cold for whatever reason, though this time it’s Scooby-Doo dancing instead of a farting contest between him and Shaggy. The identity of the villain also comes more or less out of nowhere and one crucial part of their plan goes completely unexplained. The idea of past villains returning as real monsters is intriguing, but the film arguably teases some of the more iconic villains, including the Creeper, and then does nothing with them. I also liked the concept of Velma having a romantic interest, but the film seems to more or less fumble its way through this subplot. While this idea has been explored in other Scooby-Doo media, it's arguably executed better in the 2011 direct-to-video animated feature Scooby-Doo! Legend of the Phantosaur than it is here.

Another thing that did improve is the acting. Perhaps because of the better characterizations, the actors feel more comfortable in their roles than last time and I could more easily see them as the live-action versions of Mystery Inc. Once again, Matthew Lillard is the highlight, as he continues to absolutely nail Shaggy’s voice and mannerisms. I also liked Peter Boyle and thought Alicia Silverstone, best known for Clueless and Batman & Robin, did a pretty good job.

Monsters Unleashed also features dramatically improved visuals. The brighter color palette lends itself to the cartoony vibe of the film, which also carries over into the costume and set design. Mystery Inc.’s wardrobe, as well as their base, feel like they came out of the cartoon and I appreciated the commitment to this style. Compared to the previous film, the CG is also greatly improved, with a good mix of textures and monster designs that capture the spirit of Scooby-Doo while feeling completely distinct from one another (though the Black Knight Ghost feels like a farce). This improved CG also leads to better action scenes, including one where Fred jousts against the Black Knight Ghost, and Scooby-Doo himself looks better on camera now. That said, the CG still didn’t age the best, with less polish than something like Spider-Man 2, which released the same year.

The more cartoony tone extends to the color palette and set design.

The soundtrack is also pretty decent at best. There’s a good variety of rock and hip-hop with some songs that fit the situation, including Simple Plan’s cover of the Scooby-Doo theme song, but it doesn’t stick once the film ends.

While a dramatic improvement over Scooby-Doo (2002), I’m not entirely sure who to recommend this film to. The more kid-friendly approach works, but people who aren’t already familiar with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! likely wouldn’t get as much enjoyment out of this. I’m sure there are those out there with nostalgic views of Monsters Unleashed who would appreciate it unironically, in which case I wouldn’t fault them, but I would more easily recommend it to people who either want to see more Ultra Instinct Shaggy material or want to riff on the movie with friends. If it’s any consolation, you can skip Scooby-Doo (2002) and not miss a thing.

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