Director Brian Levant restores “emotional reality” to new live-action “Scooby-Doo” film

Kate Melton, Robbie Amell, Nick Palatas and Hayley Kiyoko in "Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins"

By Jeff Pfeiffer

Zoinks! Has it really been 40 years since Scooby-Doo and the gang of Mystery Inc. entered pop culture? It sure has. But one mystery we never fully pieced together in all of this time is how Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby got together in the first place. In the fun film Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins, premiering September 13 on Cartoon Network and continuing the net’s new direction toward increased live-action projects, we do find out how Shaggy came to own the famed Great Dane and how the disparate group became friends at Coolsville High. We also get to follow them on their very first mystery (and even discover how they came to own the Mystery Machine, and get the recipe for Scooby Snacks). Robbie Amell plays Fred, Kate Melton is Daphne, Hayley Kiyoko is Velma, Nick Palatas is Shaggy, and cartoon voiceover legend Frank Welker voices Scooby.

“Much like the new Star Trek film, this is a reboot,” says director Brian Levant. “This is an origin story, and a reconceptualization of the franchise. We are trying to be as true to the original as we possibly can, and at the same time enrich the characters — even the ones who are computer-generated — and flesh them out.”

Levant is no stranger to crafting live-action films out of cartoon classics (he made the Flintstones feature films), but to his credit he does not make this one overly “cartoony.”

“We wanted things that reminded you of them,” says Levant. “We’re anchored to the original characters, but not limited by them. I’m not going to put a 16-year-old boy in an ascot, no matter what! We wanted you to feel comfortable in their clothes, but not copy them. With Daphne, we were given more of a color palette. She loves those ’60s, the purples, the pinks, the fluorescent greens. We took from that and tried to make it real, tried to flesh them out and make it so when they opened their closet you might recognize what they were wearing, but we’re not trying to copy the cartoon.”

This is not a prequel to the live-action Scooby films that hit theaters several years back. Levant was originally asked to be involved with those, but he did not like the story. In his opinion, “it was really a story about people who didn’t like each other. … I think the films were very tongue-in-cheek, that they lacked a center of emotional reality, and I think that that’s been restored in The Mystery Begins.”

In fact, this movie certainly is nowhere near as insipid — and is overall more enjoyable — than those feature films (although even here they just can’t resist a fart joke). The CGI-animated Scooby, though still pretty obviously a special effect, even looks better than in the original films at times. We come to empathize with the characters and their unique individual situations (even Scooby’s) that somehow turn them into an unexpected group of meddling crime-solvers, and some effort has been made to have personality take prominence over the paper-thin mystery (hopefully, no one has ever made the mistake of entering a Scooby-Doo adventure expecting a brainteaser on the level of Agatha Christie).

This personality is thanks in large part to a surprisingly good main cast — all of whom had very little professional experience — who do not overplay their roles or merely exaggerate the characters’ traits from the TV show. “It was like we had four Rookies of the Year on this team,” says Levant of his young cast. “Three of their resumes are high-school plays! It was really rewarding in a mentor kind of situation [to] watch these kids literally grow in confidence every day, and to see how hard they worked. We picked these kids because we liked their personalities, liked their look, but didn’t know how dedicated they would be. It was so great to see.”

Levant also enjoyed getting the veteran Frank Welker to voice Scooby. Although not the original voice of the dog on the cartoon series (he voiced Fred), Welker did take over when originator Don Messick passed away.

“We didn’t know if [Frank] was going to do it,” says Levant, “what went on in the past that he hasn’t been doing it for years. It was kind of fun to tell him how to do Scooby-Doo! Everybody was really thrilled to have him, and he seemed genuinely amused to see the new Scooby.”

“It was like we had four Rookies of the Year” says director Brian Levant of his “Scooby” cast

And what was it like for the actors working with that new, CGI Scooby? “I think these kids make it look very natural,” Levant says. “Particularly Nick, who had so much one-on-one, where he’s literally told, ‘Okay, [Scooby’s] eyes will be here, now grab his tags, rub his stomach.’ They don’t teach you that in acting class. You really do believe — which is always the elephant in the room — are people going to buy our Scooby-Doo? And our Scooby-Doo is significantly different in appearance and behavior to what they did in the movies. He is much younger. We literally did the coat of a 10-month-old dog. I think he’s a little more, quote, animated. Being younger, more energetic, peppy, things that we observe in pups and try and translate that and help the animators toward making a Scooby-Doo who’s fun, who’s young. Everybody loves a cute puppy!” (Particularly Levant, apparently, who also explains that his family has nine large dogs — six Newfoundlands!)

Levant has worked with real dogs before too, notably in the original Beethoven film, which he directed. The filmmaker enjoys leaning toward such family fare, and listening to the jovial, enthusiastic man, who laughs a lot during our interview, you can sense he still retains a spirit of childhood. “I’ll never get to do a nude scene,” he laughs. “That is the imprint of my youth, trying to create the kind of programming that impacted me and inspired me to try to replicate the kind of feelings I had watching it for today’s audiences. One of the great things about my career is that I’ve been able to take the things that I grew up on and loved and inject my feelings about them into rebuilding them, or reconceptualizing them.”

The director hopes to continue rebuilding the new Scooby-Doo live-action franchise, if this first film takes off. “We’ve already developed two new scripts that we’re working on,” he says. “And if everybody is happy with the way this goes, everything I’ve seen leads me to believe that we will be making more Scooby-Doos with this group. Hopefully the beginning of 2010 will find us in some warm climate shooting one of the scripts, hopefully two back-to-back. I wouldn’t throw out the possibility of a series, but I think right now everyone’s head is into making this something special, something you can program for a while and make it more of an event. I think a series is a wonderful thing; for the demands of the storytelling for Scooby-Doo I think it certainly makes sense. But I think we also learned to work on a bigger field and have a larger vision.”

Levant is also continuing to work on even bigger visions for theatrical films, finishing up The Spy Next Door, starring Jackie Chan and releasing in January.

“It was great reuniting with the producer of my first film, Bob Simon,” Levant says of this latest project, “and going back to New Mexico where I went to college. And finally, to work with a man like Jackie Chan — that was really the cherry on the sundae. He is really an amazing performer. The most generous human being I’ve ever known. What he’s done for earthquake relief in China isn’t to be believed. I’ve never worked with anybody who’d take the entire crew out for dinner!”

These latest films continue Levant’s own interest in quality family programming, and are additions to the current trend in filmmaking that he is happy to see.

“Thanks to computer-generated animation, I think we are in a golden age [of family films],” he continues. “I think Pixar — 10 films in a row without a dud, without an unrealistic moment — that’s just incredible. The way ‘adult drama’ has just dried up at the box office, I think people are hungry for the cinematic and television equivalent of comfort food, things that make them feel good, that have a positive spin on them, and things whose entertainment value isn’t limited to any one demographic. It’s a great time to be in that business, and I just hope that television catches up with its past and we see more half-hour comedies coming down the pike, because I think we need them and we miss them. And less reality — put the game shows back in the morning where they belong! Let’s get some entertainment out there. I’ll be here if they want to.”

Check out all our coverage of Fall TV Programming at our Fall TV Preview web site


© 2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., and Cartoon Network, Inc. Credit: Ed Araquel