Daniel Hunt recently asked via Facebook, “Craig, pleeeaaase tell us why you love Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. I’ve been wondering about that every since you brought it up in the Megaforce episode over 2 years ago.”
That’s a long time to have a question, Daniel. Maybe even longer than you think. It has in fact been nearly 3 years since the Megaforce episode (67 episodes ago, if that’s how you prefer to tell time). In it, Matt asked me what movie I love that most people hate. I replied Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. If you re-watch that episode, you may think my quick response is due to the magic of editing. Not so. It is in real time. There was no need to think. I really liked that movie. I didn’t explain the whys of it all because it would have taken up a sizeable chunk of the episode, but it is only fair that I explain.
Before I get into my explanation, let me say straight up, DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE. I do not recommend it. It is not a good movie. My affection for it is due to very special circumstances that could never be replicated, and if my faint praise for the movie inspires you to check it out, the praise itself will make you hate it for the exact opposite reason it made me giddy. If any of the following tempts you, keep in mind that it was directed by Raja Gosnell, the man who brought us Beverly Hills Chihuahua and The Smurfs. If you like those movies, go right ahead and see it. If not, I repeat: DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE. It won a Razzie for Worst Sequel, which says a lot in this day and age.
For those of you unfamiliar with the movie in question, SD2:MU is the second and final big screen, live action Scooby Doo movie. It stars Freddie Prinze, Jr, as Fred, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne, Linda Cardellini as Velma and Matthew Lillard as Shaggy. A bunch of computer chips play the dog (with Neil Fanning on voice). The plot had something to do with monsters, I think, being unleashed. [Sidebar: Just realized that “Monsters Unleashed” could very well have been added on to the title of both of Joss Whedon’s 2012 masterpieces The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods. Not so much his Much Ado About Nothing.]
Beyond that, all I remember specifically plot-wise was that Velma gets a rather extreme make-over to impress cute museum curator Seth Green.
To make you understand why I enjoyed the movie, you have to understand why I saw the movie. It was the spring of 2004, and my parents were coming into town for the afternoon, and would I care to join them for lunch and a movie. They were bringing the boys. Three of my nephews. No one had to tell me what movie they were going to because the boys were all deep into their Scooby phase. Most American kids born since the Lyndon Johnson administration have gone through it. For some reason the show still works its safe/scary magic on children despite the abundance of far more advanced cartoons made since the show premiered. By ‘04, I was nearly two decades out of my Scooby phase, and couldn’t bear to suffer through even one episode, let alone a 90 minute movie.
My mother said I didn’t have to see it. We were going to a multiplex, so I could go to some other movie. My dad didn’t want to see it either, and he was happy to see something else. I looked at the options. The big hit at the time was Mel Gibson’s torture porn film Passion of the Christ. I have to admit I was curious, but I didn’t feel like giving Gibson my money. I asked myself “What would Jesus do?” and guessed that he would buy a ticket to a low-performing, critically acclaimed movie and then simply hop theaters to watch the Son of Man get torn to shreds. The problem was I didn’t think Jesus would invite either of his fathers to theater hop with him.
The other two movies I considered were 13 Going On 30 which was getting above average reviews and had a rare performance of Andy Serkis as a human, and Mean Girls which was getting great reviews and was written by one Tina Fey, who at the time was still the news woman on SNL. She also co-starred. Very intrigued. I always like to point out that I’ve had a thing for Ms Fey since before it became fashionable- smart women with glasses, you know- and here she was with her own movie. The problem again was paternal. They seemed like odd movies to go to with my dad. Not that my dad was all about typical guy movies, but it just seemed like it might be awkward to see these two gynocentric movies with him. It’s silly, I know. In hind sight, Mean Girls would have been perfect to watch with him. He was a guidance councelor, and now, having seen it since, seeing the breadth of it’s commentary on high school hierarchies–and the subplot of how financially difficult it is to be a teacher–I can imagine no one with whom I’d rather go to that movie.
This left me with only one choice. I had to see the stupid Scooby Doo movie. I went into the theater like a man climbing to the gallows. How the hell did this happen? I have spent years avoiding bad movies, reading reviews of trusted critics so that I could minimize the possibility of wasting two hours that could go to something good. It didn’t even look like a movie that would so bad it was good. It just looked bad.
I could imagine the whole movie before it started: there would be a bunch of crappy digital effects topped off with an entirely fake talking dog; there would be fart jokes (there just had to be); there would be candy-coated pop music everywhere; there would be Freddie Prinze, Jr; there would be some stuff for grown-ups that is entirely inappropriate for kids; and I had known from a photo I had seen in a recent edition of Entertainment Weekly that at some point American Idol winner Ruben Studdard would appear to sing a song.
I am not exaggerating to say I was nauseous. I felt like I did boarding a plane in the days when I was terrified of flying. How was I able to get through the next 90 minutes of my life without my brain just giving up and dying in revenge for my betraying it? Why couldn’t Pixar or Harry Potter have had a movie out right then that the kids would have been clamoring to see? I would have loved seeing that with my nephews. Why do children do this to us? I don’t make them watch Bergmann movies. It’s unfair.
If my parents were watching me, and they probably were since I was loudly complaining in the theater, they would have recognized a refined version of a look they hadn’t seen since I tried to bolt from a roller coaster line as a child: panic. Like the bearded guy in the movie down the hall said “take this cup of suffering away from me,” although he was saying it in Aramaic.
I then remembered something that I had waiting for me at home: a free pass for an art film house in town. And a Coen Brothers’ movie was playing there. That’s it! I would reward myself for subjecting myself to crap this afternoon with movie gold tonight. I was calmed in time for the lights to go down.
And then what happened? Everything I predicted, that’s what. But by the time Ruben Studdard came out to sing during the dance party at the end of the movie, I just didn’t care anymore. I was content. Why not let the man have a song? It’s not like he can’t sing. Why not end with a dance party? Isn’t that how Shakespeare closed a lot of his comedies, with a dance? Was it madness or did I actually like the movie?
Along the way to this happy ending, I saw many things. There was a fart joke. It was inevitable. It was a big, desperate, weaponized fart, but oddly enough it moves the plot along. I, too, could move on, and forgave it.
There was a grab bag of pop music in the back ground, but that’s what it was: background music, and I never don’t enjoy Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” Besides, the pop-music-everywhere soundtrack filler isn’t so much a flaw of the movie as it is a flaw of modern Hollywood.
There was a bunch of CGI including, but not limited to, the dog- but of course there was. It was a movie based on a cartoon that stars a talking Great Dane and a bunch of monsters. How else were you supposed to do that? I’d rather an entirely animated dog than having a dog with just its animated lips moving. And the CGI was forgivable. I was being snobbish when it came to that. Hadn’t I just minutes earlier almost went to see a movie just because I am a fan Andy “Gollum Kong” Serkis? I was being prejudiced against the movie and projecting that prejudice on the tools that went into making the movie. CGI Disgust is something I apply to movies I don’t like. I don’t hold it against “Lord of the Rings” or “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Why should I hold it against this movie? In the end, I never doubted the dog didn’t exist, so well done. And Matt Lillard as Shaggy really sells the fact that Scooby is a real character, which is half the battle when it comes to acting opposite animation.
Lillard, if I may say, rocks it as Shaggy. Honestly, the movie had to be made if for no other reason than for letting the guy play the part he was born to play. I can only remember one specific line from the movie (other than various “Zoinks” and “ruh-roh’s” and “jinkie’s” and “my glasses!” and “come on, gang’s”), and it was his. Shaggy and Scoob have angered the rest of the team and are kicked out of their old clubhouse. This for some reason leads to a montage of Fred, Daphne and Velma cleaning the hideout with pop music playing in the background. This also led to me thinking, “Oh God, really? A cleaning montage?” And then the action cuts to a despondent Shaggy outside saying to his old friend, “I bet they’re having a montage in there without us.” Only one person in the theater laughed, and that person was me, and I just laughed again writing the line.
And there we have a joke for adults that kids won’t get, but not inappropriate as I had expected. What might be counted as inappropriate was Velma’s makeover. Yes. So very very inappropriate…and not particularly funny, and, um… That was great. I have to admit it. It was great. I have dated quite a few dark haired women with glasses. They are my type. In fact, I often described them as “Velma types.” I also like Daphnes, of course, but smart ladies with glasses are where it is at for me (see above comment re: Tina Fey). I was perfectly happy with Linda “Lindsay Weir” Cardellini as Velma, but put her in orange latex, and you have an image I never thought it was possible to imagine. It was like the makers of the movie knew I was coming. So, yes the movie had inappropriate humor. Gloriously inappropriate.
But, there was another adult thing- far more adult than kids usually see. It wasn’t fetishistic or sexual, but instead thematic. It was a moment towards the end. It was a moment of crisis and honesty that children rarely get to see. It happened after the Gang discovered that some monsters have been unleashed. It is up to our heroes to stop them. To do so, they have to split up (as is the custom). Daphne and Fred are cornered and after putting up a pretty good fight (it helps if you have someone on your side with extremely vampire slayer-like kicking abilities), but the monsters get the upper hand. The couple is lying in the dirt waiting for their deaths, and they have just enough time to have a heart-to-heart.
And Fred apologizes. He hasn’t been a good leader. Maybe he wasn’t ever the leader in the first place. Maybe the leader was, in fact, the go-to Daphne or the smart Velma. But, he thought he was the leader, and he has failed in that capacity. He didn’t protect Daphne well enough. He let her down. Now they were going to die. They weren’t panicking, but he was legitimately despondent.
Of course, she tells him he hasn’t let anyone down, and they end up living and saving the day, but for that moment the movie had an emotional truth that I was not expecting. It might have been any couple lying in the darkness of the middle of the night with the man admitting that he felt like he failed his family. For most men this is an intensely difficult moment. It’s the type of thing a man whispers so the kids can’t hear, so that the world doesn’t find him out, and maybe even so that he won’t wake the woman at his side. “I’m sorry I failed you.” This is a moment I’d expect between Walter and Skyler White in the early seasons of Breaking Bad, but not Fred and Daphne. The cartoon melted away and I saw the man behind the mask. And it was Freddie Prinze, Jr, the real-life husband of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was there lying by his side. This double layer of actor and character made the moment even more profound. I was completely broadsided. My throat caught, my jaw tightened, and as Hippolyta confesses in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, surprised at a tender and true moment while watching an awful play, “Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.”
I would expect this from The Iron Giant, but not Scooby Doo 2. Was this the effects of Stockholm Syndrome? I was under duress, all but forced to watch a movie I did not want to see. I have never cared about Fred as a character. I imagine no one ever has (except for people who are also named Fred, which might be part of the reason why Prinze wanted the part). Still, the dark night of anyone’s soul is a powerful thing to see.
Maybe I was trying to find anything positive to take away from the situation, and I grasped too enthusiastically. But, I’ve seen other movies, better movies that I have liked far less.
I don’t think it’s Stockholm Syndrome so much as it is a matter of expectations. My hopes were so impossibly low that no movie could be as bad as the one I was imagining, so any good qualities looked brilliant, like how the smallest spark illuminates a windowless room. The opposite happened to me later that night when I went to see the Coen Brothers’ movie. The Coens, in my world, are one of the safest cinematic bets out there. The movie I saw was The Ladykillers. It sucked. To put it in Hanna Barbaric terms, the movie is their cinematic Scrappy Doo. It had multiple fart jokes, for Christ’s sake. How could the Golden Boys of Minnesota deliver this thing? It isn’t a tenth as good as Fargo or Raising Arizona.
Wait. Is that really true? Not one-tenth as good? First off, how do you quantify a tenth of a Fargo? Secondly, and this might sound blasphemous, but the movie wasn’t that bad. It was just bad for the Coens. The only unforgivable flaw of The Ladykillers is that the credits include the words “Joel and Ethan Coen.” It was as though the smartest guys in school got a C+ on a test. If, instead, it had been written and directed by Scooby’s Raja Gosnell, people would have hope for the guy’s career. He would have surprised the non-believers by making a mildly funny comedy filled with style and strangeness, with a rollicking gospel score and an unexpectedly daffy performance by Tom Hanks. It would have been like the dumbass who never bothers to come to class getting a C+. Amazing!
It comes down to expectations. Expectations are why I look back with fondness to something as admittedly dumb as Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and with revulsion at something as passably good asThe Ladykillers. It is also the reason why at least once on Welcome to the Basement I have proudly said “…and that’s why I keep my expectations low.” After that fateful day with my nephews I learned that each audience member affects the quality of the film they are watching, and I never would have seen the movie and learned this lesson if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.
[if you have any movie related questions, feel free to ask in the comment section. Craig may eventually get around to answering it.]