Monday, May 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Scooby-Doo and the Curse of the 13th Ghost' (2019)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Over the decades, cartoon dog Scooby-Doo and his human friends have starred in many, many different series, some of which lasted for numerous seasons, some of which were cut short after just a short run. The 1985 series The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo lasted for just 13 episodes, and it's mostly just a footnote in the long franchise history. But the proliferation of online fandom means that nothing in pop culture gets lost anymore, and thus the latest straight-to-video Scooby-Doo original movie is an exercise in integrating this obscure series into some kind of overarching continuity.

That makes Scooby-Doo and the Curse of the 13th Ghost an extremely niche product, and yet it plays out mostly like a typical kid-friendly Scooby-Doo production, albeit with more self-awareness. Anyone who (like me) has never seen the original 13 Ghosts series can easily follow the movie, and it wouldn't be hard to believe that all the silly back story imported from the old show was just made up for this new movie. That includes the character of Vincent Van Ghoul, who is modeled after and was originally voiced by Vincent Price, and here gets an impressive soundalike vocal performance from veteran voice actor Maurice LaMarche.

Vincent summons the Scooby gang to help him capture the 13th ghost who escaped from an ancient chest of demons ("demon" and "ghost" are used pretty much interchangeably throughout) when it was accidentally opened by Scooby and Shaggy in the first episode of 13 Ghosts. The show only lasted long enough for the gang (also including Daphne, but minus regulars Fred and Velma) to capture 12 of the ghosts before it was canceled, and so the 13th ghoul has just been hanging out in continuity limbo. The gang travels first to Vincent's spooky castle home and then to a remote village in the Himalayas in order to track down and capture that final ghost.

Curse is full of familiar Scooby-Doo elements, including groan-worthy puns and ineffectual, ultimately harmless bad guys. But it's also surprisingly clever, at least for someone who hasn't kept up with the various incarnations of the show for the past 30 years. After an opening prologue establishing Vincent's origin story, the movie introduces the Scooby gang as they seem to thwart one of their typical nemeses (a creepy farmer sabotaging the development of a new mall). But it turns out that this isn't a masked criminal, and they've in fact caught an innocent man. A local cop tells them to stop trying to solve mysteries, or he'll have to haul them in.

When Vincent reaches out for help, Daphne has to clue Fred and Velma in on who he is, because they weren't part of that incarnation of the show. She also takes over as leader, changing into a stylish version of her very '80s jumpsuit from the 13 Ghosts series, prompting an existential crisis from Fred as to what his role is within the group if Daphne is leader. Sure, it's all fan service, but there's an element of intelligent deconstruction that keeps it from just coming across as pandering.

The plot drags in the second half (this probably did not need to be a feature-length story), and the villain is underwhelming, but overall Curse is lively and entertaining, with strong voice work from a mix of veterans (Frank Welker has been voicing Fred sine 1969!) and relative newcomers (Matthew Lillard has taken his live-action role as Shaggy into the animation realm, and Kate Micucci is an inspired choice as Velma). The animation is colorful and appealing, and there's enough here to engage both the primary Scooby-Doo kid audience and the nerdy adults who care about the continuity minutiae of cartoons.