“Yeah … that's right, Scoob … get plenty of wood, man.”
At the time of writing this review, it is Halloween, and my house is bedecked in all manner of horrific paraphernalia. I've spent every night of October watching classic fright-flicks from the 30's onwards – period chills, moody menace and then gore and taboo-breaking aplenty. But now, right now, it just feels right to indulge in a bit of Scooby-love. Let's face it, the cartoon show is possibly the longest-running horror franchise in history and, over the years, it has done the genre proud with its never-ending succession of ghouls, ghosts, curses, cobwebs, zombies and criminal diabolism.
So, as a long-time fan of the Scoob and those meddling kids, I'm very pleased to find the Mystery Gang now unmasking spooky villainy on Blu-ray. I grew up with the original series, which was creepy enough, fresh enough, and kooky enough to ensure the Hanna Barbera cartoon show a lasting cult status. The show has evolved over the years from crossover celebrity hybrids like Scooby-Doo Meets Batman and Meets The Harlem Globetrotters, and go-it-all-alone adventures for Shaggy and Scooby, to the enormously successful reboot of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? that played out on the Cartoon Network. Scooby gained the fan-hated little cousin Scrappy (crappy) Doo, who revealed he had all the “Puppy Power” of a recent road-kill, and the gang even regressed to being kids again and honing their detective skills for an even younger market in A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. With the inevitable, and deflating live-action adventures that boasted Sarah Michelle Gellar as kid-crush fave-babe, Daphne Blake, Linda Cardellini as the sexiest Velma Dinkley imaginable, Matthew Lillard effecting the best Shaggy impersonation, a pretty lousy CG Scooby (the cell-drawn version from the early seventies was more believable) and Freddie Prinz Jnr. as the Ascot-wearing doofus, Fred Jones, running out of steam and leaving both old-school fans and newcomers, alike, colder than a week-old cadaver, the flame was carried by a slew of terrific, feature-length animated capers that kept to the tried 'n' trusted format, but mixed-in globe-trotting, genuine humour, lots of exciting action and smoother, brighter and more dynamic animation ... and, in some cases, very imaginative and harder-edged stories.
The mould had been broken. Years ago, in Scooby-Doo On Zombie Island (still an absolute classic), the fiends were actually real. The story brought in terrifying were-cats, real ghosts, working voodoo, a nasty gator-massacre, and the genuinely vengeful undead. It was a belter of a story that posed a properly deadly level of threat, and was a shot in the arm of a franchise that everybody thought they knew inside-out. Although the many adventures that the gang has undertaken since then – aliens, mummies, living dead pirates, Hawaiian gremlins, the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster etc – have tended to cater for the old, reliable “reveal” at the end, there is still the occasional outing that truly goes beyond the norm. In Scooby-Doo And The Goblin King, the gang are transported into another dimension full of real monsters and black magic. In Scooby-Doo And The Cyber Chase, they are catapulted, Tron-style, into a fiendish game-world to do battle with a malignant and very real bug in the system.
But the biggest swing-shift in the series is with the more adult tone that some of them strike. Now you'd think that this would come at a price, and that the “fun” would be swapped for street-savvy, tech-jargon and hip teenage credentials. Well, I don't think that's been the case at all. The gang are still the same, their attitudes remain unchanged and the essential mix of creep-outs and charisma is as winning as it ever was.
On TV now, we have the newest incarnation of the Gang in Mystery Incorporated. Now this is the one that some people, long-time fans, have tuned-out of. All of sudden, there's sex in the mix. Now, don't get me wrong, the writers aren't taking Shaggy's name literally and Scooby-Snacks haven't become a euphemism for, perhaps, tastier treats, but the show now fosters a little more attention to the relationships between the characters. Daphne has the hots for Fred, though the proud mummy's-boy never seems to realise that he's onto a winner. And Velma, number-crunching intellectual that she may be, has clear designs upon social misfit, Shaggy. And Scooby … well, every dog will have its day … sometime, I suppose. The animation is more fluid and rich, and a little bit of anime has been absorbed into its style. But the stories, the threats and the monsters (or the nefarious ne'er-do-wells inside the monsters) are still fabulously imaginative and the scenarios are still “like, cool, man!”
And, thankfully, the creators haven't given up on the feature-length animated movies … which brings us to this great release from Warner Bros, Scooby-Doo Camp Scare.
Produced in 2010, this terrific movie ropes in the usual vocal talent of Fred Welker (waggling his tonsils as both Fred and Scooby), Grey Delisle (Daphne), Mindy Cohn (Velma), and Matthew Lillard, who took over from the great Casey Kasem for Shaggy. The group dynamic is just as engaging and zany, the characters so deeply entrenched in pop culture that we never think to question the dubious intelligence of Scooby and the apparent agelessness of the gang. Like Doctor Who, they can just go on indefinitely, finding mysteries everywhere they go.
Camp Scare,written by Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas, tells a multi-faceted tale of skulduggery, greed and evil as Fred leads his chums back to nature to act as camp councillors at his old summer retreat of Camp Little Moose, not realising that he is placing himself, the Scooby Gang and the trio of kids who reluctantly arrive at the outdoors centre, in dire peril. The terrifying Woodsman, equipped with a huge and wicked axe, a stature that would make the Terminator whimper and a zombie-face with hate-filled eyes so malevolent that he'd have the Devil crying for his mummy, is on the prowl and carving up the forest and the huts with some sinister agenda. But he's not alone. In the lake, there is also a frightening Fishman. Reputed to be the mutated remains of a bullied kid from years before, this spiny, demonic aquatic foe has more teeth than a dozen sharks, the fins of a Jurassic predator, and the arms – yes, arms – of a Mixed Martial Arts champion. And there's an airborne threat as well. Swooping down upon the unwary in the desolate Shadow Canyon is a screaming banshee called the Spectre. It's all happening around Camp Little Moose, isn't it?
But what's the connection? Why do these bizarre monsters want everyone out of the way?
It's down to the Scooby Gang to unravel the mystery. Together with their three wards, they must summon the courage to delve deep into the woods and the menacing Shadow Canyon, and even deeper into the murky depths of the lake. Action, scares and laughs are the order of the day, and few will be disappointed with the fun to be had from watching the usual crew getting menaced, trapped and cornered by the trio of fearsome antagonists before finally outwitting them with their meddling ways.
With supporting vocals from Dee Bradley Baker (the intimidating Woodsman/Fishman), Stephen Root, Tara Strong and especially from the superstar of animated characterisation, Mark Hamill, who spouts a variety of wacky characters here, Camp Scare is full of creepies, shriekies and, of course, “Jinkies!”
Daphne has always been the hottie, right?
Well, she's got some serious competition in this. Not only do we have the uber-sexy councillor from the rival retreat of Camp Big Moose, Jessica (voiced by Lauren Tom), who is sure to have dads making a note of where the kids put the disc afterwards, but there is also the breathtaking sight our Velma sporting some mighty fine curves in her little white bikini. Personally speaking, I've always had a bit of a crush on the brain-box of the gang. That bulbous orange sweater can't fully hide the goods … and, now, with Camp Scare, the boffin becomes a babe! I applaud the fact that the writers and animators don't shy away from such things these days. Scooby-Doo may well be for the kids, but most of those kids are actually hormonal teenagers and nostalgic fathers, like me, so this little move-with-the-times is most welcome. You can't help but think how much the animators enjoyed producing some of these images, too!
Director Ethan Spaulding has a reasonable amount of experience with hip animation. He's been involved with The Simpsons, the new Thundercats, Avatar: The Last Airbender and even the more conventional superheroics of Green Lantern: First Flight and Wonder Woman. His style of flash, dynamic visuals and a gaudy, day-glow aesthetic is brought to bear on Scooby, but his respect for the traditions, foibles and eccentricities of the team of detective icons is without reproach. Scooby and Shaggy consume the requisite vast amounts of food, including the sort of peppers that would have Hell's denizens screaming for the Fire Brigade. Fred's wayward confidence is put to the test as all manner of outdoors skills fall flat. Daphne ensures that she always has superb colour coordination and fashion-sense. Velma pokes sarcastic but well-intentioned barbs and advice in the direction of Scooby and Shaggy at every opportunity … and gets that big, deductive brain working overtime. And, in the time-honoured tradition, the entire gang, as well as their unlucky companions, get chased all over the show, get split up and undergo their own slapstick escapes, evasions and counter-attacks. The new characters are all so satisfyingly well-drawn that you truly don't notice that they are merely stereotypes. The various set-ups work so sublimely that you are cajoled along without a care that the story is merely a flurry of the usual contrivances and clichés. And the greatest thing about the film is that it actually contains a couple of genuinely scary moments, courtesy of the Woodsman and the Fishman, who both seem to forget that they are only in a kid's cartoon. I mean, the Woodsman hurls that massive axe and it is clearly apparent that he really is aiming for someone's head. And when the Fishman gets a grip of you – you're either going to drown, or he's going to chomp down on you with those hideous jaws. These aren't merely running around with strangled groans, or jumping out and going “Boo!”. There is a tangible sense of danger, especially to the suspenseful underwater sequences.
To go along with this in-yer-face attitude of campfire legends come to life, the animation is incredibly vivid and so colourful you'd think your screen had just gone supernova. The actual movement of the camera and the direction of the film is what impresses most. There is lots of panning and fast cutting, and emphatic zooms, all of which make the plentiful and elaborate action set-pieces suitably dynamic and playfully gripping. The opening titles are delivered in a cute retro style, accompanied by a terrific Fifties-like pop jingle called “Summertime”. Fans will know that another song will take centre-stage at some point in the film to emblazon a montage sequence of frivolity. That's cool, too. Both songs are catchy. And the whole thing rattles along with the laughs and the shivers coming a dozen-to-the-minute.
Another area that is worthy of mention is the score from Robert J. Kral. Kral is a regular composer for animated fare, with a few classic works for the likes Batman: Gotham Knight (for which he scored two of the stories), Superman/Doomsday and Green Lantern: First Flight, as well as a handful of other Scooby adventures and even Duck Dodgers. His music is totally uncontrived and, in a perfectly shrewd move, takes the story seriously. He emphasises the scary moments and thrives on the frantic episodes of whiplash action, also laying down a fine underscore to support the steadily unfolding mystery.
Indeed, it is hard for me to fault this instalment. The pace of the adventure is great. The set-pieces are often quite bravura and exciting, with the Woodsman coming over as a genuinely pants-wetting threat, and the Fishman encounters surprisingly intense and vivid. Plus, we get a variety of environments for the Gang to blunder through, and some marvellous imagery, such as the rope-bridge cliff-hanger, some axe-swinging mayhem atop the roof of a cabin, the glittering subterranean caves and the awe-inspiring vision of an entire sunken town lurking on the bed of the lake.
Having seen all of the Scooby-Doo adventures that are on disc – aye, everything – I can safely say that Camp Scare offers some tremendous thrills and chills, plenty of the necessary playful and comedic antics, some smartly economic storytelling and the real sense of a fully-rounded yarn that feels very satisfying come the arrival of the end credits. If you are like me and tend to watch this sort of thing with the kids, you'll probably know that if they love it they will surely want to watch it again right away. Well, this is rarely a problem with any Scooby adventure … but Camp Scare is so enjoyable that you'll probably find that you'll spin it again immediately even if the nippers don't want to see it again.
This one is almost up there with Zombie Island in terms of fun, frights and all-round quality, and it comes highly recommended.
“Way to go, Scoob!!!!”
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