Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)

1998, Warner Bros. Directed by Hiroshi Aoyama, Kazumi Fukushima, Jim Stenstrum. Voices: Scott Innes, Billy West, Mary Kay Bergman, Frank Welker, B.J. Ward, Adrienne Barbeau, Tara Charendoff. Animated.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +0
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?NR USCCB ?Not

Content advisory: Menacing situations and chase sequences; depictions of zombies and preternatural monsters involving uncanny effects; cartoony depiction of voodoo and other bad spiritual practices.

Note: This review was written by a guest critic.

By Jimmy Akin

Scooby-Doo was born in 1969. He was reborn almost thirty years later, in 1998.

After Hanna-Barbera’s monster-mystery-thriller cartoon "Scooby-Doo, Where are You!" debuted on Saturday morning TV in 1969, I was so young that it gave me nightmares. It did that for a lot of other kids, too. It was wildly successful. It was quality work. And it spawned several follow-up series, as well as a host of imitators ("Josie and the Pussycats," "Speedbuggy," "Jabberjaw").

Over time, though, the quality of Scooby-Doo began to wane. As the producers made one bad decision after another, the franchise died a long, painful, embarrassing death. By the end, my generation had given up on it. When it vanished from TV screen it was good riddance. Later, there were a few atrocious direct-to-video movies (e.g., Scooby Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf).

Then came the turning point, when a set of producers finally decided to take the legend seriously and honor the elements that first made it cool. In 1998, Hanna-Barbara released the new direct-to-video movie Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island.

It was the legend’s rebirth.

The magic was back.

Though set in the modern day (e.g., Fred has a broadcast-quality camcorder), the movie apparently occurs only a few brief years after the original Scooby-Doo adventures. The gang are still young adults, though they aren’t quite the "meddling kids" they were in the original series.

The movie completely ignores all of the bad TV stuff. It ejects from "Scooby-Doo" continuity Scooby-Dum, Scrappy-Doo, and an embarrassing parade of guest stars (the Addams Family; Batman and Robin; Sonny and Cher; the Three Stooges; the Harlem Globetrotters), as well as all of the previous encounters (in the dark days of the franchise’s decline) with "real" monsters.

All that Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island treats as canonical is the early adventures in which each ghost and monster the gang encountered — however scary — turned out to be a fake caused by all too human individuals who were up to no good. In short, it acknowledges the true, pure form of the legend — for which Scooby-Doo is most famous — and ignores all its degenerate incarnations.

Yet it also goes beyond the original legend. It asks questions that fans of the original series would be curious about, such as "How could the gang keep travelling around in search of ghosts and monsters when all the ghosts and monsters it encountered were fake?" and "What would the gang do as adults?" Both questions are answered in plausible ways.

In this movie, we see that — per the viewer’s intuition — that the gang simply could not keep going with each monster being a fake. At some point, they stopped treating each new ghost as if it was real and started assuming them to be fakes. Eventually, they got bored with the ghost-busting business and went their separate ways.

Thus we get to see what they’d do as adults. The choices aren’t all what I would have made, but they all make sense. Here we learn that Daphne has become a successful television reporter with her own syndicated show. Freddy, who always had romantic chemistry with her, stayed to become her producer and cameraman. Shaggy, having the closest bond with Scooy-Doo, choose a string of low-paying jobs where the two could work together (currently they are customs inspectors sniffing for contraband food coming into the U.S.). And, Velma — with her analytical, mystery-solving mind — has become the proprietress of a mystery bookshop.

What gets the gang back together? Preparing for the second season of her show, Daphne is hoping to finally find some real haunted houses, and as a birthday surprise, Fred arranges for the old gang to come along for the ride. Soon the "Mystery, Inc." crew is combing Lousiana for authentic haunts.

They’re still jaded from all their time pulling rubber masks of criminals, however, as expressed in the musical montage we see of their initial efforts trying to find real ghosts and monsters. Music has always been part of the Scooby-Doo phenomenon; as one might expect from a show debuting just two years after the Summer of Love, rock n’ roll was frequently used in the original series, especially during chase sequences. As we watch the gang setting off to find the paranormal, their jadedness is expressed in the lyrics of a particularly clever toe-tapper called "The Ghost Is Here," which read in part:

It doesn’t matter where we go, we know
A ghost is gonna show, and so
We look for the bogus, look for the scam.
Every time… the ghost is a sham!

But as events progress, the gang sees growing evidence that they have — at last — encountered the truly paranormal. Initially, Fred and Velma casually toss off naturalistic, Agent Scully-like explanations for what they are seeing, but the evidence keeps mounting. Eventually the gang is face-to-face with the question "What if the monster mask isn’t a mask?"

Now we learn something else the fans of the classic series always wondered: What would happen if "Mystery, Inc." ever encountered real monsters? This is not the lousy answer we saw in the innumerable real-monster episodes of the franchise’s decline, after the show had lost all the qualities that ever made it stand out against the background of Saturday morning mush. Scooby Doo on Zombie Island doesn’t even acknowledge those episodes as ever occurring. In this movie, we see what would happen if the original, pristine "Mystery, Inc." gang met real monsters after encountering innumerable fakes.

And it’s worth it.

There are a lot of other cool things about the movie, also. For one, the animation is better than it ever was in previous incarnations. While faithful to the original series in design, the characters have a more realistic, 3-D look, caused by the subtleties of shadow and light that began to flow into American animation in the 1990s from Japanese anime.

But the moviemakers don’t forget they’re doing a cartoon. One of the interesting things about the original "Scooby-Doo" series was the dreamlike cartoon logic of certain sequences (e.g., let’s stick this guy to the floor with glue made of flour and water; let’s have Scooby-Doo cut a hole in the fog with a knife). This aspect of the original series is represented in the film, as when Scooby and Shaggy eat too much and end up looking like human/canine blimps.

The writing is smart. One of the challenges of any movie adaptation of a TV show is finding a way to lengthening it from TV-length to movie-length without making it seem forced and contrived. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island faces a special challenge in transforming the original 22-minute Saturday morning Scooby-Doo format into a 77-minute movie format — more than three times its TV length! It pulls it off. The plot doesn’t drag with superfluous sequences or seem like several episodes stitched together.

Drawing on the theme of The Haunted South — which was prominent in the various TV series — the movie delivers a tale in which we are treated to more plot twists than one would expect.

There are also numerous small touches that displays an energy not seen since "Scooby-Doo, Where are You!" The film gives brief, humorous treatment to the "Mystery, Inc." gang’s quirky trademarks — the things that make the viewer ask "What’s up with that?" — like Shaggy’s perpetually tiny beard, Freddy’s ascot, and the biggest quirky trademark of all: Scooby-Doo himself as a "sort of talking" dog.

There is character development. The film briefly touches on the romantic tension between Fred and Daphne that the viewer always knew was there, though the original series never developed it. Even more significantly, most of the "Mystery, Inc." gang finally gets last names (though we do have to wait until the sequel Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders to learn Shaggy’s real first name.)

Parents of young children should note that the zombies and monsters in this movie are scarier than in previous incarnations of Scooby-Doo, and may be too frightening for sensitive children. Also, depictions of voodoo and other bad spiritual practices figure in the story — though the film clearly depicts these activities as wrong, and those who do them pay the price.

Having said that, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is a real treat for fans of the original series. The movie provides answers to questions fans long wondered about. One can’t help but feel that the filmmakers are fans of the original series themselves, instead of just TV execs determined to pump out enough footage to fill airtime.

The energy in writing that attends the franchise’s animated rebirth makes one feel as when one wakes up rested from a long night’s sleep, and the respectful treatment the "Scooby-Doo" concept gets makes one feel incredibly relieved, as when one awaken from… a nightmare.

Tags: By Jimmy Akin, Werewolfish, Zombified

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