Try as I might to avoid being what some consider a stereotypical nerd, the sad truth is that I’m pretty much a total dork, no matter how hard I try to be cool. One area where this is particularly apparent is in social situations. Socially awkward doesn’t even begin to describe me, as any of you who’ve met me (or have had something spilled on you by me) can attest. So, when I recently found myself attempting to make small talk…at a memorial service, of all places, I somehow came up with the brilliant idea to regale my fellow mourners with tales of…Scooby Doo. Yes. Scooby-Doo.
Now, I am by no means a Scooby expert, but I am a fan. I estimate that I spent approximately one-third of my childhood watching every incarnation of Scooby, from the original Scooby-Doo, Where are You! to The New Scooby-Doo Movies to The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby-Doo to A Pup Named Scooby-Doo to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And, like most kids, I even entertained the idea of becoming a detective and solving mysteries myself. And I would have gotten away with it, too, if mystery-solving hadn’t started cutting into the time I was devoting to masturbation.
To this day, if I’m flipping channels and there’s some incarnation of Scooby on TV, I’ll watch it. I’m less fond of the two theatrical releases, which I felt really missed the point of the original toons entirely. However, I always felt Matthew Lillard was inspired casting. Cartoon Network has been producing its own live-action movies lately, and the one I saw wasn’t that bad, especially since it focused more on the friendship between our disparate band of sleuths, and that always gets me, because I didn’t have many friends growing up (see “social awkwardness” and “masturbation” above).
But the Scooby incarnation I was telling my bewildered (and grieving) audience about was the new Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. I say “new,” because I just discovered it myself. It actually premiered on Cartoon Network back in October. I stumbled upon an episode a couple of weeks ago and sort of rolled my eyes at yet another attempt to update the franchise by adding scatological humor and over-the-top self-parody. I was about to change the channel when I happened to notice Mama Cass Elliot and Don Knotts in a crowd scene. Jenkies! Thus, I was hooked. There’s enough retro charm in Mystery Incorporated to keep old-school fans like me interested, while updating the rest with enough iCarly era goofiness to please a new generation.
This would seem like a logical place to stop and let people get back to their grieving. Instead, I kept going, doing a character-by-character analysis. Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby are all back and accounted for, and in their original costumes. The character designs have been stylized just a tad, and this is more apparent in Fred than any of the others. Fred appears more musclebound and has more of a lantern jaw than in previous incarnations. Plus, they’ve sexed Velma up a bit, which makes sense, since geeky girls are sexy now. They’ve given her a smaller waist and more pronounced bust line, cutesier facial features and bows in her bob. Bows are sexy, right?
Voices this time around are supplied by Frank Welker (Fred/Scooby), Mindy Cohn (Velma), Grey DeLisle (Daphne) and, in an awesome stroke of continuity, Matthew Lillard as Shaggy. Casey Kasem, Shaggy’s original voice, shows up as Shaggy’s father, which is perfect. I wish they’d done the same with Fred. Frank Welker is a genius, and no one can touch his range. He is the voice of Fred. But…he is very noticeably the oddball among the rest of the voice cast. It may be Scooby dooby blasphemy, but I just don’t buy him as a teenager anymore. Especially since Fred has been re-imagined as a bumbling, somewhat dimwitted boy who’s only interested in one thing: building traps to capture fake monsters. Fred isn’t the only one who’s undergone a personality makeover, either. In addition to being hotter, Velma is now also bitchier, which is to be expected, I suppose. She certainly exhibited a streak of arrogance in the original, but this new interpretation takes it a step further, making her a bit of a bully, especially as she aggressively pursues Shaggy, demanding he give up junk food and finally choose between his dog and his girl. She is so unpleasant at times, I found myself yelling, “Choose the dog! Choose the dog!”
Saving the foursome, though, is a stronger, savvier Daphne and a surprisingly nuanced Shaggy. While Daphne’s driving force is getting Fred’s attention, her methods are somewhat more sophisticated than Velma’s demands on Shaggy. As for Shaggy, Lillard could very well make Shaggy a lifelong career, like Kasem did. Traditionally, Shaggy has been all id. Lillard brings a little super-ego to the equation, making Shaggy a more sensitive and well-rounded character who still follows his most basic desires, but is not defined by them.
Now…when the words “id” and “super-ego” and “Shaggy” started falling out of my mouth, I knew I had to make a decision. Even though the looks on everyone’s faces screamed, “Why won’t this guy shut up about Scooby-Doo?!” I realized that I couldn’t just stop then. I had to finish this dissertation and hopefully reel the audience in and win them over. Otherwise, I’d have to face the fact that I’d somehow managed to hold a group of people hostage with a monologue about Scooby-Doo for no other reason than my complete lack of social skills.
So, while the changes to the main characters themselves are somewhat hit or miss, the changes to their universe are quite clever. Familiar character designs from previous series pop up when you least expect them, like the Don Knotts and Mama Cass cameos mentioned above. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hanna-Barbera moment in “Revenge of the Man Crab,” even teenage Pebbles and Bam-Bam make an appearance. The show even dabbles in some subtle homoeroticism when Fred visits his father’s old fraternity and immediately discovers college boys really enjoy their wrestling and hazing.
Clever in-jokes and nostalgia comfort food aside, Mystery Incorporated does a great job of creating an environment for our heroes to do their work. Crystal Cove is the main setting and explains the frequency of mysteries by proclaiming itself the “most hauntedest” place on Earth. The adults in town, including the Scooby gang’s parents, see the constant stream of hauntings and mysteries as a source of tourism income for the town and view their kids’ efforts as counter-productive.
The generic, nameless sheriff who always showed up at the end of every episode to take the unmasked monster away, now has a name (Sheriff Stone) and a voice (Patrick Warburton). Admittedly, Warburton is a bit jarring at first, mainly because his voice has become so identifiable with other animated characters. Still, he manages to bring a lot of whimsy and surprise to the role. But the most profound change to the Scooby universe is a surprising one. The art direction in Mystery Incorporated is, in a word, gorgeous. While the character designs are relatively simple, the backgrounds are works of art. Varying from Shag-inspired retro pastiche to gothic watercolor, the art gives the show a unique look and character of its own.
That, plus the creative use of lighting and cinematic camera angles and editing, make Mystery Incorporated the most sophisticated looking and feeling incarnation of the Scooby saga we’ve ever seen. Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated somehow manages to take a familiar franchise, add new elements, maintain familiar ones and appeal to both older and younger audiences. It’s truly the Battlestar Galactica of cartoons about cowardly dog detectives.
Known forever now as “that Scooby-Doo guy at the memorial,” I take some comfort in being able to come here and share my ramblings with all of you. Assuming I’m not the only socially awkward geek in the world, I promise that if you ever find yourself uncomfortably navigating a social function and would like to discuss my controversial pro-Ewok theory, by all means come find me. I apologize in advance for invariably spilling something on you.
Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated airs Mondays nights at 6/7c on Cartoon Network. It is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon, and select episodes and clips are available for viewing at CartoonNetwork.com.