So there I am, 8:34am, pants ON, ready to become a productive human being when I see it: a stylized yet distinct image. A picture of wonder and terror. A shot so lovingly rendered, so bright and vibrant, and suddenly I am thrown back into the creaky old couch of yesteryear, five year old hands holding too much mac and cheese and I am ready to watch this new goddamn Scooby Doo movie.
But let’s take it back now y’all: Scooby Doo: Zombie Island premiered in 1998, as a straight to VHS movie. It follows the adventures of the Scooby gang (Fred, Daphne, Velma, Scooby, & Shaggy for those just tuning in at home) as they venture onto Moonscar Island for Daphne’s internship project. They are there to investigate the rumors of zombies, and they stay in a spooky hotel run by a creepy family. Eventually, cue the chase scene music, they are found by the zombies and run wild all over the island but, of course, find each once more, back at the hotel. Over the course of the movie, they come to realize that the zombies are actually helping them, trying to get them to leave this goddamn island, because their oh-so-generous hosts are actually...
IMMORTAL CAT PEOPLE WHO SUCK VISITORS' LIFE FORCES BECAUSE THEY PRAYED TO A CAT GOD TO ESCAPE A PIRATE.
You can’t make this shit up. Or, well, someone did. And bless their soul. But, as you expected, the gang gets it together and they end up ruining the cat people’s plans and basically killing them? They dissolve into weird green goo and then we’re good to go.
Despite excellent production value and a compelling narrative for a five year old, there is something about this movie that has bothered me. And no, it’s not the weird immortal cat people. It’s that a Scooby Doo movie actually went for the real supernatural. Scooby Doo arose following an era of pervasive capitalist propaganda, and emerged out of counter-culture ideology. It somehow took hold within the hegemonic idealization of the individual / manifest destiny prime of Hollywood, and simultaneously uplifted the animation industry.
The show has continued to thrive on its basis of subverting the supernatural by writing capitalist white men as VILLAINS, defeated by a group of teenagers and their dog! This trope has remained the centerpoint of the series for decades, pointing both to the devolution of the supernatural and spiritual belief in American society and to the rise in awareness surrounding individualism and capitalism. Side point: Velma also might be queer and Shaggy’s DEFINITELY doing a lot of weed, so there’s that, too. These themes have remained central, EXCEPT for a quick interlude into the “real” supernatural during the apathy and bewilderment of the mid to late 90s. And man, I think that’s wild.
So here I am, jammies BACK on, butt firmly planted on this couch, ready to watch Scooby Doo: RETURN to Zombie Island to see if they revert back to the anti-capitalist ass-kicking teenagers we know and love.
And folks!! They did it!!
We start, wide shot to the Malt Shack, the Mystery Machine is NOT THERE, Fred is quite sad, and the gang decides to stop solving mysteries because they’re tired and Scooby & Shaggy have finally had enough. The hungry duo, however, suddenly get selected for a free vacation to a paradise island and they all head out for a nice week off. They get there and, of course, the shenanigans begin. Ultimately, we learn that they’ve been lured to this “MoonSTAR” island -- which, of course, used to be “MoonSCAR” island -- to be a part of this greedy film director’s next movie. This plot comes out once the gang realizes the hotel staff are actually actors, pretending to be zombies -- which they so cleverly discover because the staff quote Romeo & Juliet, use Improv’s “Yes, and,” and are all too attractive for their own good. So, they figure out the zombies, but there are still wacky cat monsters appearing everywhere -- which, of course, turn out to be unhappy island employees, searching for the pirate’s treasure. The gang finds the treasure, and the film director takes it -- but the gang remembers the power of their voices as youth and reclaim their mystery solving identity.
So, let’s unpack that. This movie came out last month, but has been in the works since 2017. Not only does it highlight an anti-capitalist ideology by reverting to the trope of greedy guy as fake supernatural entity, but it also introduces a role that we now know and hate: the overbearing and creepy male film director. Not only that, we also get an interesting commentary on the importance of youth voices: the gang struggles throughout the movie to accept their role as mystery-solvers, but finally find their voice at the end and promise to continue standing up for the truth.
HOWEVER, all of this seems counter to the production goals, because wow this movie seems like a cash grab. Scooby Doo: Zombie Island had an excellent, if weird, script, was beautifully designed, and had some truly emotional shots. Return to Zombie Island boasts only an okay plot, an okay soundtrack, and some important political commentary. Zombie Island was incredibly successful, jumpstarting the Scooby Doo franchise’s move into made-for-VHS movies and reinvigorating the series. This movie seems to strive for the same effect, but with significantly less artistry and grace.
And with that, Scooby dooby dooby dooby doo and thank you!