Scooby-Doo is a TV show made with love: love of the characters, love of the genre, love of the nostalgia, love of the repetition. It’s hard for any programme to stretch and grow when it is so concretely stuck in the same classic formula. For a long time, Scooby-Doo relied an awful lot on the audience’s affection for the perennially unchanging set-up. Earlier iterations of the show like The New Scooby-Doo Movies tried to spice things up by throwing in special guest stars (not even Sonny and Cher battling shark-men could save that series) while the addition of Scrappy-Doo, Scooby-Dum and the pint-sized Flim Flam each proved divisive. The format hadn’t changed no matter how big or starry Mystery Inc. got.
Scooby-Doo‘s first foray into the 21st century was What’s New, Scooby-Doo? The answer is: not much. What’s New, Scooby-Doo? was a colourful and modern interpretation but it didn’t exactly break new ground. The largest and most controversial change came in 2010 with Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, which took the franchise into dark, Gothic-tinged territory, introducing supernatural elements for the first time and a recurring setting. Mystery Incorporated did, however, keep the standalone mystery initially but, even then, the villains were often connected to the overarching story arc (involving the original gang and a sinister parrot) and there was a broader mystery to solve.
Enter Be Cool, Scooby-Doo. It’s the latest incarnation of the show and, frankly, it’s an absolute dream. Childhood nostalgia and my love of a good whodunnit (not that classic Scooby-Doo, with its limited setting and grand total of one suspect, was particularly challenging) kept me coming back over the years but now that those who grew up with Scooby-Doo are bigger and more cynical, the appeal has diminished. And Scooby-Doo can’t very well keep ploughing the same furrow forever so Be Cool, Scooby-Doo, in a world of Phineas And Ferb, Adventure Time and The LEGO Movie, needed to do something markedly new.
Be Cool, Scooby-Doo is not, as Cartoon Network producer Zac Moncrief stressed over the summer, “a campy or meta version” of Scooby-Doo. Now, that’s debatable. Be Cool, Scooby-Doo isn’t campy in any way but it has a quirky, tongue-in-cheek style that certainly skirts around ‘meta’. To not call it meta or self-referential would belie the show’s charm. Be Cool, Scooby-Doo isn’t an unreconstructed iteration of the cartoon but it’s infinitely more knowing than previous series. Mystery Incorporated had a couple of winks to the audience but, for the most part, it just stuffed each adventure with as many pop culture references as possible in the vain hope of seeming up to the minute. Be Cool, Scooby-Doo doesn’t need to fall back on naff puns or dated references to contemporize Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Fred and Daphne – it can rely squarely on its humour.
In Be Cool, Scooby-Doo, Daphne has been the biggest change in the traditional overhaul from one incarnation of Scooby Doo to the next. Everyone else’s personalities remain, more or less, intact but Daphne, known for her danger-prone tendencies, sexual chemistry with Fred and girlish temperament, has changed dramatically. She’s zanier, less ditzy, more hyperactive and, above everything, more creative. There’s still an element of danger-proneness but it’s toned down and Daphne spends more time coming up with a weekly ‘Daphne-ism’ than getting repeatedly kidnapped. The ‘Daphne-ism’s are the solution in whichever episode they feature in. Throughout the series, without explanation, Daphne acquires a family of puppets, dons a mascot suit and spots a beard at one point. It may seem a bit of a cop-out but some of Be Cool, Scooby-Doo‘s best jokes are derived from the weekly ‘Daphne-ism’ and the storytelling isn’t as revolutionary as the humour so you can’t fault the contrivances.
While it is Daphne who has changed the most, the other members of the gang have had their personalities subtly tweaked as well so they feel more like real people and less two-dimensional (ahem). Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated tried to go for dark and gritty realism but came off as trying to hard. Be Cool, Scooby-Doo gets the mix just right. Fred is more driven and almost obsessed with mystery-solving, as well as valuing himself highly as a leader. The decision to tone down Shaggy’s voracious appetite, making him a sharper individual and giving Scooby limited dialogue pays off in spades. Shaggy is, as a result, funnier and not repetitive, while Scooby remains the heart of the show but also more like an actual dog. Velma feels more like a genuine person, too, with her neuroses and insecurities accentuated. Her intellect is given a weekly moment to shine in the denouement when the action segues into what is, essentially, a detailed interactive PowerPoint, explaining what the villain’s plot was and how they pulled off their monster costume.
Something has to be said about the animation, which has had its fair share of criticism since early artwork materialised on the web. Admittedly, the graphics do initially look more than a little crude but after about two episodes, you stop noticing. The style of animation is entirely in keeping with Be Cool, Scooby-Doo‘s brand of humour and confidence. Just because it doesn’t look like previous incarnations of Scooby-Doo doesn’t mean it’s bad, and it’s akin to the likes of Gravity Falls and Adventure Time, two similar shows lauded for similar reasons. There’s no point judging a book by its cover or a cartoon by its animation and here the bright and stripped-back visuals fit the modern styling like a glove.
The set-up hasn’t changed and while the gang may be a great deal more self-aware, there’s still a bloke in a costume with a clichéd motive at the end of each episode. Some tweaks have, however, been made to the traditional ‘I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids’ denouement. In one music-themed episode, the gang interrupt a concert to stop the monster but when it’s caught, the audience start to boo because the chase is halting their gig. Velma takes the microphone and proceeds to sing the explanation for solving the mystery, ending the episode with a musical number. It’s utterly bizarre, hugely enjoyable stuff and that’s just one example of how Be Cool, Scooby-Doo takes the humble simplicity of the original cartoon and puts a hilarious and knowing spin on it for a modern audience.
Another episode has the gang try and solve the mystery of a goblin scaring people away from a crystalline cavern. Because of the fragile crystals, the gang are prohibited from talking for the whole run-time and the whole thing ends with Velma accidentally destroying the entire cavern. There are other little things to treasure: when Shaggy and Scooby retrace their steps at one moment, Scooby barks, “Déjà vu vu vuuuuuu!” while in another episode we discover that Fred is not scared of heights but, rather, widths. Other adventures try and perk up the overworked formula with entertaining twists. There’s a story set during a Victorian murder mystery party where the gang are assigned parts that they don’t break for the whole 20 minutes, while another episode set in a museum has Fred swap the gang for a group of little kids in order to prove that he’s a good leader.
Be Cool, Scooby-Doo doesn’t boast groundbreaking storytelling as it doesn’t throw away the franchise’s tried and true formula entirely but, for the most part, it’s hilarious, refreshing and irreverent to a fault. It still feels like Scooby-Doo, so younger viewers will love it, but it’s packed with the kind of observational comedy adults are used to. Every episode feels different enough, Mystery Inc. are solid, well-rounded characters and the weekly ‘Daphne-ism’s are terrific. Overall, Be Cool, Scooby-Doo is a smart and affectionate crowd-pleaser that’s utterly worth your time.