The two finest products in the Scooby-Doo franchise are probably the movie “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island” and the TV show “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo,” the former having arguably the most complex plot and animation of any Scooby product and the latter exploiting the franchise’s campy horror atmosphere by tossing in the voice talent of Vincent Price. So imagine this blog’s surprise when both entries in the Scooby canon got direct-to-video sequels last year: “Scooby-Doo! And the Curse of the 13th Ghost” and “Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island.”
Actually, imagine this blog’s surprise when we realized there were about a billion direct-to-video Scooby Doo movies. I think about 37 are in production right now.
Surprise aside, it seemed obvious that these movies were must see for a fan like me, if only to check how they’d stack up to the originals. They didn’t come close, but not necessarily for the reason you’d expect.
“Curse of the 13th Ghost” begins at an ending, with the Mysteries Inc. gang being ordered by the local sheriff to close up shop and quit bothering all those criminals in ghost costumes. But their forced retirement ends suddenly when Shaggy, Daphne and Scooby are contacted by their old friend Vincent Van Ghoul. The warlock is seeking their help in tracking down the final, and most powerful, ghost that was trapped in the Chest of Demons.
A little while later, in “Return to Zombie Island,” the kids are again trying to get away from solving mysteries. Escape presents itself in the form of contest Shaggy wins–he, three friends and one pet are granted a free trip to an island getaway. However, upon arrival, they find the environment a little too familiar, the locals a little too offbeat. Is it a blast from the past? Or a new mystery to solve?
I did not realize the two films were intimately connected until partway through my viewing experience, and I wondered why the sheriff from the first film appeared suddenly in the center of the second. Nevertheless, it explains a lot of the vibe. There is a “Brady Bunch” kind of vibe–the film version with Gary Cole, not the TV series–that is set from the opening sequence, particularly in “Curse of the 13th Ghost.” The Mystery Inc. gang appears to be unstuck in time, floating about and confused by a modern world that fears teenagers in malls and is populated with escalators.
Both films sport animation that mirrors the mood perfectly well. It’s definitely retro, with no real surprises either way (aside from a couple of obviously CGI backgrounds, and that’s only if that bothers purists).
The voice acting is fine as well. Grey Griffin, Kate Micucci and vocal vet Frank Welker all do good work, and Maurice LaMarche does a surprisingly solid Vincent Price impersonation–although maybe not that surprising, since he’s the go-to guy for Orson Welles. In “Return to Zombie Island,” comedian John Michael Higgins has fun as the suspicious Alan Smithee. However, Cassandra Peterson is given disappointingly little to do. Scooby-Doo netted Elvira to play Elvira, and all she has is a cameo. That’s a combination that’s begging for expansion.
Of the two films, “Curse of the 13th Ghost” is probably better in a holistic way. The dialogue is not bad, witty in an accessible, family-friendly way. Van Ghoul gets tons of creepy, creaky puns. Combined with LaMarche’s delivery, whenever he’s on screen it’s a treat.
There’s also a kind of moral about finding purpose, for anyone who turns to animated movies for life lessons, something that’s more or less missing in the second film. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just a little more meandering.
In truth, both films have their issues with lag. Mod mood aside, they both rely on extended chase scenes, Monkees-esque music videos and Abbot and Costello sight gags in their centers. While that worked in the original series, where episodes wrapped in less than half an hour, in feature length films it will probably bore all but the most loyal fans.
However, the biggest letdown for me not a return to the aesthetics of the original series but a return to its metaphysics. In the original series it was always a guy in a mask, but both “13 Ghosts” and “Zombie Island” allowed room for the supernatural, the straight supernatural of “Zombie Island” and the outright mystical of “13 Ghosts.” The two 2019 sequels attempt to straddle the middle of mysticism and skepticism, with a definite err on the side of skepticism.
In “13 Ghosts,” this is achieved by making the believer Vincent Van Ghoul character seem potentially deluded, and in “Return to Zombie Island,” it’s done by including a couple of permanently unexplained elements in a “for later” kind of way. Neither effort is entirely satisfactory, and I’m not sure how to take it. The film fan in me is confounded by the non-twists that attempt to keep things balanced. The metaphysical philosopher in me is frustrated by the excessive hand-waving of the supernatural and lack of contemplation on the unknown. The Vincent Price fan in me is just disappointed.
In the end, the grown man in me asks why I’m watching children’s cartoons and expecting philosophical discourse to begin with. Oh well. I think I’m done with the franchise for a while now–at least until they decide to do movie sequels of “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” or “Scooby-Doo Meets the Boo Brothers,” possibly “Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School.” Yeah. Betcha didn’t think anyone remembered those…