One of the few professional perks to the pandemic hitting when it did was that I had an excellent excuse to avoid reviewing several spring-of-2020 titles I was quietly dreading, among them the computer-animated Scoob!, an update on the numerous Scooby-Doo series I didn't enjoy even as a kid. (I swear I wasn't born a grouchy 52-year-old, but amidst the corny options of Saturday-morning TV in the 1970s, the adventures of this talking canine and his human Mystery Inc. crew always struck grade-school me as stupid.) As if to punish me for my relief, however, director Tony Cervone's movie – which is also currently streaming on HBO Max – opened this past weekend at both local cineplexes and both area drive-ins, all but forcing me to finally cave and watch the damn thing. So I did. It was actually pretty good. I suppose I had that coming.
During the film's first 20 minutes or so, I was convinced that my hesitancy was justified. The inevitable origin-story prelude detailing how Shaggy met and named Scooby “Dooby” Doo was like an uninspired riff on how Little Orphan Annie met and named Sandy; the introductory scenes involving young Fred, Daphne, and Velma were simultaneously manic and rote; most of the jokes seemed lame even for a pre-teen demographic. Barring the occasionally witty flourish, such as Velma dressing as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween, Scoob!'s blend of sentiment, slapstick, and shoehorned pop-culture references was already proving tiresome, and that was before Simon Cowell popped in – voicing himself none too enthusiastically – as a potential Mystery Inc. investor. (Naturally, Shaggy and Scooby try to endear themselves to the guy through a painful rendition of “Shallow.”) Happily, though, it all gets a lot better from there … not that Cervone's feature really had anywhere to go but up.
Among the plentiful miracles of Netflix's animated The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the film gives us loads of funny one-liners and sight gags in tandem with a cleverly constructed narrative, resonant themes, legitimate emotion, and exceptional vocal performances. Scoob! at least gives us the funny one-liners and sight gags. Its plotting is unapologetically Saturday-morning silly, with the Mystery Inc. gang teaming up with the Falcon Force – a short-lived Hanna-Barbera superhero team from the '70s that I had understandably stricken from memory – to foil the nefarious plans of evil genius Dick Dastardly (a gruffly amusing Jason Isaacs). But while I couldn't remember much of the storyline an hour after the film ended, I was amazed at just how many of its throwaway bits stuck in my head and made me smile.
There was Dastardly's reference to the eternally bland Fred as a “poor man's Hemsworth” (like the rest of us, Fred wants to know if he means Chris or Liam), plus the quick visual poke at Fred's omnipresent neckerchief. Falcon Force leader Blue Falcon, an egomaniacal boob voiced by Mark Wahlberg, inspires a grown-up grin with his autobiography Just Falcon Around, as well as his discomfort when Shaggy admits to dropping a bunch of F-bombs – although the “F,” it turns out, simply stands for “Falcon.” Ken Jeong, as the sardonic robotic canine Dynomutt, has a few solid moments attacking Blue Falcon's intellect (“You thought Tinder was an app that delivered firewood!”), while Cervone and his quartet of screenwriters deliver memorable visuals in their skyscraper-sized Cerberus and rolling Ferris wheel straight out of Spielberg's WWII comedy 1941. Hell, I even laughed out loud at a routine involving Daphne's hiding of Scooby snacks, plus a questionable bit – one I felt deeply ashamed for giggling at – in which Scooby couldn't pronounce Dastardly's first name and Jason Isaacs yelled, “It's Dick! Dick! Di-i-i-ick!!!” at the top of his lungs. (I may be 52, but clearly, I'm also eight.)
Agreeable though the readings generally are, I wish the performers demonstrated an animated fizz equal to what Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini brought to the live-action Scooby-Doos of 2002 and 2004, as Will Forte's Shaggy, Zac Efron's Fred, Amanda Seyfried's Daphne, Gina Rodriguez's Velma, and Frank Welker's Scooby-Doo – the actor a veteran of this franchise since 1969 – all sound just as you'd expect without delivering more than you'd expect. Considering just how little I was expecting in the first place, though, I could hardly say that I was disappointed by Scoob!, and I was sincerely impressed that the movie looked as polished as it does, that the de rigueur tearing off of the masks was as delightful as it was, and that the ever-irritating Scrappy-Doo, blessedly, was nowhere in sight. And keep your ears open for the Blue Falcon's assistant Keith, an off-screen stage manager who's forever messing up his cues and speaks in the unfailingly friendly voice of Henry Winkler. Scoob! may rate a B-minus, but this sweetly hapless figure totally deserves an “Aa-a-a-a-ay!"
ARMY OF THE DEAD
Among certain circles, there was enormous excitement a couple months ago when HBO Max premiered Zack Snyder's Justice League, the official director's cut of Snyder's 2017 superhero adventure that doubled the original's two-hour running length. I trust my friends and relatives who saw the extended version and told me – and they all did – that it's vastly superior to what came before. (How could it not be?) But while the idea is pure fantasy, I sure wish a group of vocal cinephiles would amass and convince studios to release anti-director's cuts of Snyder flicks, effectively whittling them down to the hour-and-a-half, tops, their overlong presentations deserve. Case in point: Snyder's new Army of the Dead, which is enjoying a theatrical engagement in tandem with its debut on Netflix. A combo platter of heist thriller and zombie-apocalypse horror show, and set amidst the tacky opulence of Las Vegas, no less, Snyder's latest features loads of suitably gruesome effects and jolts of macabre humor, and for a genre that's all about the annihilation of brains, the movie boasts enough great (or at least frisky) ideas to keep your own brain spinning. It's a totally enjoyable 90 minutes. If only its actual run time wasn't 150 minutes.
Army of the Dead does include one sequence that I'm tempted to call perfect, because the opening credits do an absolutely spectacular job of providing backstory for the zombie insurrection, explaining how the screeching hordes found themselves quarantined in Vegas, and introducing our team of mercenaries who now want financial payback for their previous acts of heroism. (This deliriously gory mini-movie also scores several laughs, with the hissing, toothy, flesh-devouring creatures including a number of scantily clad showgirls and shirtless boy-lesque dancers.) After that, though, it's nearly a full hour before the hired casino robbers led by Dave Bautista encounter the zombified denizens of Sin City, and I felt so drained by the time we got there that I barely had the energy to enjoy the undead white tiger that once belonged to Siegfried & Roy.
To date, my favorite Snyder movie remains his 2004 feature-film debut: a remake of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead that oozed wit along with its viscera and clocked in at a tidy 100 minutes. Since then, however, the director appears to have learned all the wrong lessons from his obvious influences Michael Bay and James Cameron: His works have become increasingly epic-length because, in addition to thrilling us with bombastic images and effects, he seems to also want us to care. Why else would Snyder spend so much meaningless time on synthetic, forgettable soap-opera sub-plots involving Bautista's estranged daughter (Ella Purnell) and estranged bestie (Ana de la Reguera) and their team of fellow looters with one personality quirk apiece? Army of the Dead is structured like Aliens and as grandiose as Armageddon – or, God forbid, Pearl Harbor – but the characters are pure (potential) zombie meat. And while he's an enjoyable screen presence, to be sure, let's face it: Dave Bautista is not an actor you want to watch weeping over lost loved ones, especially when so much of his and the others' suffering is presented via Snyder's typically incessant, typically obnoxious slow-motion.
With a few shifts in emphasis and presentation, Army of the Dead could've been a horror-comedy classic, and it's a bummer that it isn't one. After all, as we learn in the prelude, Snyder's entire zombie apocalypse turns out to be the fault of one ill-timed sexual incident on a mostly empty stretch of highway– a sick-joke spin on Titanic's downfall coming from two ship workers so fixated on Leo and Kate that they don't notice the iceberg directly in front of them. But give me a 90-minute (okay, 60-minute) version of this thing any day of the week! I lied about the tiger: I absolutely had the energy to enjoy him, especially during the big cat's encounter with poor, rubber-faced Garrett Dillahunt. Although strict genre traditionalists might well disapprove, I loved the “romantic” horde leaders with apparently functional cerebral cortices who ruled over their gaudy empire, and admired the apparently functional zombie caste system that permitted group-think among those without brains. (That would certainly explain a lot of America.) The severed zombie head that didn't seem to notice its absent body was a fantastic touch, as was the deserving human sacrifice to the zombie masses (a nice bit that made up for the character's misogynistic skeeviness), and I really dug that the smartest of the undead finally had the idea to start wearing a bulletproof helmet.
Plus, the unfailingly phenomenal Tig Notaro adds legit laughs as a sarcastic helicopter pilot, her portrayal almost wholly green-screened in as a replacement for Chris D'Elia after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. The effect is uncanny – not once did I think Notaro wasn't physically in the same scene with her Army of the Dead co-stars – and the mind boggles at how this performer could be employed down the road. Romancing Diane Keaton in Annie Hall? Getting trapped between rocks for 127 Hours? Playing Keyser Söze? The possibilities are endless.
If you visit the Wikipedia page for the title character in Dream Horse – and yes, the horse named Dream Alliance has, and totally deserves, his own Wikipedia page – you'll encounter a triumph-of-the-under-mammal tale so inspiring you can't believe it didn't inspire a movie sooner. Born and bred to be a racing champion, and funded by a syndicate of devoted Welshmen and -women, Dream Alliance demonstrated significant behavioral issues before eventually coming in fourth during his 2004 debut. His next races found Dream Alliance placing in third, and then second, and then coming in first in early 2006, after which he sliced a tendon in prep for the Grand National and was nearly put down. The horse recovered, though, went on to win again, and is currently living in presumably happy retirement in West England. Although this moving bit of sports history led to the 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance, it's finally being told in bio-pic form, and while I'm sure Daniel Day-Lewis would've been astounding in the title role, director Euros Lyn's feature actually stars Toni Collette and Damian Lewis as Dream Alliance's chief financial and emotional support. It's truly can't-miss material, and to be fair, Lyn's feel-good film doesn't miss much. I just wish the movie were as invested in its horse as it is in its humans – and unfortunately, it doesn't appear all that invested in its humans, at least beyond their stereotypical functions in this generically genial entertainment.
Because none of Dream Alliance's investors were professional (or even amateur) trainers, just a collection of endearing locals with 10 pounds per week to spare, it makes sense that we barely see any of the animal's slow rise from racing newbie to champ, even though much of the appeal of these Seabiscuit-y movies lies in watching that trajectory. But why are the trainers barely even referenced? More frustrating still: Why don't we ever get to meet the jockey? We see him, of course; Dream Alliance is hardly jumping over all those scary-looking hurdles alone. But at no point is the horse's rider spoken to, or even named, which feels like a major oversight on screenwriter Neil McKay's part. Wouldn't the guy maybe have something useful, or perhaps merely interesting, to say regarding what the experience of riding Dream Alliance is like? (When the horse takes a tumble on the racetrack – out of our view, thankfully – and emergency vets run to his aid, Dream Alliance's backers don't express a nanosecond of concern for any injuries the jockey may have suffered.)
So there's not much in Dream Horse about the horse's training, or the horse's rider, or the horse. What there is instead is lots of time devoted to Collette's dissatisfied barmaid, and Lewis' dejected working stiff, and Collette's dispirited hubby (Owen Teale), and Lewis' angry wife (Joanna Page), and all the other glum and occasionally sloshed contributors to the horse's cause who find renewed purpose and a spring in their steps due to their pony's startling achievement. It's not the worst set-up for family-friendly, lump-in-the-throat fun; the actors (among them 78-year-old Welsh legend Siân Phillips) are uniformly admirable; there are plenty of smiles, if not nearly enough chuckles; and the end credits are terrific, with nearly the entire cast gathered in a pub for a rousing group sing-along to Tom Jones' “Delilah.” That's easily the movie's best scene. You may notice the irony of the horse not being in it.