I would rather watch paint dry than rewatch Trick or Treat Scooby-Doo!
And that’s saying a lot; Scooby-Doo is my all-time favourite childhood entertainment. Which movie is my favourite? I’ll give you my top five. Which Scooby shows do I think represent and expand on the franchise best? I can name two or three. Which are the only live-action movies worth watching? Okay, no competition there. We all know it’s James Gunn’s often massively problematic and joyously campy duology.
But my perception of these beloved characters barely survived one viewing of Trick or Treat; I highly doubt it would be able to survive another. The movie takes the concept of the Scooby-Doo franchise and shoves it so far up its own ass that it may as well spend the rest of its pathetically miserable life there, if this is the franchise’s future. The result is a half-baked metacommentary with little to no character, plot, or intrigue to speak of — that simultaneously manages to disrespect the franchise’s previous iterations while becoming the very thing it criticizes.
Metacommentary: The movie!
Here’s a quick rundown of Trick or Treat for those of you who stopped paying attention to Scooby Doo like functional adults. Having captured their latest baddie, Mystery Inc uses a thread from their costume to connect all the crimes they’ve ever solved — or, at least, the ones they solved in the original series. Turns out these mysteries can all be traced back to evil costume designer Coco Diablo, whom they quickly trick into confessing to the authorities.
But oh no! Now there’s no more mysteries to solve. What will Mystery Inc do? The answer is literally throw a coin into a well and wish for the best, which apparently works since a ghost arbitrarily shows up to terrorize them yet again. Now, they have to gang up with the very person who’s always been behind the madness: Diablo, introduced Hannibal Lecter style.
This is when the movie takes a turn; instead of maintaining the unsubtle commentary on capitalism they’ve been shoving down our throats for the first 30 minutes, they spend the next half hour propelling the plot forward with metajoke after metajoke. The biggest culprits are the monsters themselves, which are all crude interpretations of our main cast that spell out how each of their fatal flaws are counterproductive to their goals. These monsters feel less like opponents and more like your sibling poking you throughout the movie, whispering, “Do you get it?”
According to the prison warden — the ultimate villain of the story — his monsters are ‘evil’ versions of the gang. But they often end up feeling more like reflections than foils. Fred, Shaggy, and Scooby get it the worst — with Fred’s obsessiveness and Shaggy and Scooby’s gluttony actively impeding Mystery Inc’s goals. Though Velma and Daphne aren’t manifestations of their archetypes, they aren’t exactly developed characters — but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The result is a plot constructed of coincidences all subordinated to a grand metacommentary — these characters’ story ended after the first series, and every product that’s come after has seen writers forcing them through the motions.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think this is an inherently bad commentary to make in a Scooby-Doo movie, which becomes especially clear when the pieces fall further into place in the last 15 minutes of the movie. Once unmasked, the prison warden, Mystery Inc’s self-proclaimed biggest fan, explains that he was trying to give Mystery Inc one last thrill. His last significant act is then accidentally releasing all the prisoners, whom the gang has to round up in a rushed and pointless finale. The last scene in the movie sees Fred throwing money into that same well by the handful while Mystery Inc laughs hysterically in the background. The last shot teases a sequel — the eye of a monster at the bottom of the well.
Okay, so I get it. The initial run of Scooby-Doo heavily criticized a distinctly American version of capitalism that constructed a social hierarchy based on private property ownership. In the original series, most of the villains attempt to commit white-collar crimes that destroy community bonds in favour of stealing profitable land. Trick or Treat then repeatedly alludes to these villains to underscore anticapitalism as the original commentary of Scooby-Doo.
So what happens when the original series ends and that goal is met? Fred throws a coin into the well — symbolizing both rampant consumerism and greed — producing an arbitrary ghost that characterizes every subsequent iteration of the franchise as a hollow and unnecessary addition produced by the exact thing that Mystery Inc opposed. The finale is supposed to feel pointless because it’s forced by the prison warden — a representation of the consumer who keeps begging for new villains for the Scooby gang to bust.
There are kernels of additional commentary here and there on everything from modern policing to the prison industrial complex, but what I’ve described is basically the gist. And that’s all — honestly, pretty interesting. The movie’s core idea — that capitalism beats franchises like a dead horse until they fail to produce profits — could work. So why doesn’t this movie work for me?
Unfortunately, in order to comment on how a franchise ran its course over 50 years ago and has spent most of its life reproducing cheap and shallow versions of its message and characters, the writers needed the Scooby-Doo franchise to actually fit that description. Though it might be the case that the majority of Scooby-Doo projects came to life due to capitalistic greed and consumerism, that doesn’t mean the artists who made them didn’t attempt to create interesting and original products.
To make an archetype
The 1998 film Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island incorporates elements of real horror into its story and has the gang facing off against actual supernatural creatures, resulting in my obsession with zombie media. The characters — who are reunited after we see them split up and pursue their own paths — are recognizable, yet likable and admirable.
2005’s Scooby-Doo! in Where’s My Mummy actually manages to tackle how white tomb robbers steal ancient artefacts under the guise of archeological discovery, which feels like a meaningful expansion on issues that the original series tackled. It also includes new, compelling characters about whom we get to learn through the meaningful interactions they have with our main characters.
As a rule, characters in Trick or Treat don’t interact, let alone meaningfully. Instead, they say things at each other to characterize themselves with one defining trait. Even the characters with whom the writers try to do something — Velma and Daphne — end up falling flat because their arcs are used to reinforce more bland commentary.
I’ll start with Daphne, since she’s traditionally been the harder character to handle. In the years since the original series came out, writers have struggled to deal with Daphne’s damsel-in-distress status and the conflation of her character with her looks. I don’t personally think that Daphne is an inexcusably misogynistic stereotype in the original series, but most writers do, given the number of times she’s been ‘girl bossified.’ Some versions do it more gracefully than others — demonstrating how Daphne combines femininity and resourcefulness to solve problems — while others elect to just make her a badass.
But I’ve never seen any movie or TV show just flat out call her useless, which is basically all the beginning of Trick or Treat does. Additionally, it has the audacity to make vanity the fatal flaw of her monster self, as though that was ever a problem she had in the original series. It honestly comes off as more misogynistic that the writers watched the original series, decided that Daphne’s only character traits were being feminine and pretty, and then conflated those traits with vanity and uselessness.
Admittedly, these explicit statements of her uselessness are meant to be subverted, since she’s the only one who actually pushes the plot forward. But when the end of the movie tries to feed me the ‘she was the leader all along’ line, I feel gaslighted. If her only claim to leadership is that she finally solved one mystery and did so because the rest of the characters were made to act incompetent by the writers, then it doesn’t really feel like an earned feminist moment. It feels like a cheap appeal to modern sensibilities.
Velma doesn’t get anything better. The majority of the hype around this movie is due to Velma’s canonical crush on Coco. Now, I’m all for LGBTQ+ representation in kids’ shows, and, honestly, this has been a long time coming. But it’s almost disappointing that it has to be in this product. Velma’s only real storyline is that she likes Coco — which, embarrassingly, is how she’s made incompetent. In a movie that comments on how capitalism reduces characters and stories, it feels particularly cynical to make one of those characters LGBTQ+ while failing to develop them in any other meaningful way. Talk about exploiting identity for profit.
Ultimately, the writers have subordinated their story to their message. They couldn’t tackle the nuanced characters into which Mystery Inc had evolved through multiple iterations, so they decided to turn the gang into ‘strawmen’ whom they could knock down with one punch. Add some unoriginal and, frankly, overdone metacommentary and criticism of capitalism, and voila: the writers created the exact product they’re mocking while looking down their noses at artists who actually tried to do something new with the material.
At least Trick or Treat’s writers are right about one thing: if this is where capitalistic greed is taking the Scooby-Doo franchise, then maybe it is best that we let it die.