May 2020 Forecast

By Michael Lynderey

May 16, 2020

Does anybody remember movie theaters?

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Deep into the crisis, colossal battles between gargantuan gap-toothed deepsea monsters and the military erupt over the skies of both major cities and small-town USA. As such, theatres remain closed, and wide release films have been delayed until, at the moment, July. But two movies that would have previously hit 3,000+ screens are becoming available in May through other... less mainstream... avenues, if you choose to accept them.

Warner Bros. moved Scoob! off of May 15th but then lassoed it back for the same date, into the wilds of on-demand. And, after a giant hamster attacked The Lovebirds premiere (it ate Kumail Nanjiani, but there were no casualties), Paramount Pictures sold the film to Netflix, which happily obliged and is looking to share.

1. Scoob! (May 15th)
While no one was paying them too much mind, Scooby-Doo and his cohorts in mystery-busting have spent the last 22 years assembling a mass media empire of children's entertainment, containing but not limited to, two theatrical films, 36 (thirty-six!) straight-to-video features, all but three of them animated (and one, unpreventably, and unforgivably, in LEGO), and five new animated television series; the most recent, Scooby-Doo and Guess Who?, has the Scooby-gang teaming up with a different notable in each episode in the fight for right, from Wonder Woman to Abraham Lincoln to, as the show explicitly states, "professional basketball player Chris Paul" (one of these people even voiced themselves). And another Scooby fact that astonished me - while Casey Kasem famously voiced Shaggy Rogers for several decades, it's even more remarkable that one actor, the legendary vocal artist Frank Welker, has provided the voice for admittedly mature-looking teenager Fred Jones since all the way back to the show's creation in 1969. Them's a lot of years.

The Scooby team is archetypical for Gen Xers and then millennials, and has remained unchanged since its conception - the Scoobies are baby boomers, presumably born circa 1951, from which point they have since existed in perpetuity, never aging a day from their apparent teenage years, voyaging in their van down lonely rural highways in the United States and exposing and sending off to jail every poor bastard who ever decided to improve their lot in life by dressing up as a scary monster in order to increase their farm's real estate prices (if you've ever lived in a rural area, you know: this works, and it actually happens quite a lot). So, a warning: if you've been disguising yourself as a one-legged mummy to feign your apricot field as more lucrative to potential buyers, watch out for that Scooby van coming down the road. They'll get you, those meddling kids, and their dog, too.

The Scoobies are led technically by Fred Jones, who is tall and blond and likably forthright. His girlfriend or at least pseudo-love interest is Daphne, the unfairly underestimated bombshell of the group (she told Fred she wanted to wait for marriage... sadly, it's been 50 years and still waiting). Then there is Shaggy, a rumple-haired ne'er-do-well, and Velma, the fourth human of the group, who wears glasses and uptight brown hair and thus carries all the attributes you might associate with such description. And finally, Scoobert Scooby Doo, the team's animal mascot, a credit to his race (the Great Danes).

And yes, Scooby-Doo talks, but not like very many other vocal canines in popular culture - who, whether they communicate out in the public sphere or only with other animals, always speak either with a generic American accent, or they sound like every ethnic and/or regional stereotype known to cinema, depending on what the filmmakers thought was funnier. No, the uncanny thing about Scooby-Doo is that he talks much like you would 'expect' a dog to sound like if he actually spoke, a series of rumbled growls awkwardly coming together to make out actually quite perfect and legible English. It's fun.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!'s first episode, "What a Night for a Knight," premiered on CBS one fine Saturday morning, September 13, 1969, changing the world, and then the show ran for 24 more episodes, the last of which aired on Halloween, 1970, bittersweetly (and don't say CBS never gave you nothin'!). The show was revived a few years later, and then again, and again, until it became settled tradition that a new Scooby-Doo series would premiere every few years and convert each successive generation of children to its cause (in the manner of all great 1960s American pop art, like Star Trek or Lucky Charms cereal, the Scooby franchise has gained immortality). No new episodes ran between 1991 and 2002, however, but in 1998 the Scooby group began their current incarnation with Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, their first straight-to-video release, a title that must have done well enough to inspire some brilliant studio executive to mozy the gang along on their transition to the big screen.

And so, Scooby-Doo in 2002 was a big live action summer blockbuster that earned $153m domestically and an unkind review from critic Roger Ebert (and they worked very hard for that one star, too!). Aside from token English villain Mr. Bean (don't ask), the film featured an all-name cast of pre-millennial movie stars, with Matthew Lillard as Shaggy, Freddie Prinze, Jr., dyed very hard and very blond, as Fred, A-list scream queen Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne, and Linda Cardellini also quite perfectly cast as Velma (Neil Fanning voiced Scooby-Doo, now transformed into a CGI monstrosity, taking over from the famed and late Don Messick). A Scooby sequel, Monsters Unleashed, followed in 2004, but with the box office down to $84m, the gang was relegated to fighting inactual ghouls in one of the multiple available entertainment ventures that exist 'outside' movieplexes.

And so it was that Prinze, Jr., a likeable actor from 1997-2001 era teen movies, entered into one of those odd situations wherein his highest-grossing films also became his last wide live action theatrical releases to date (Orlando Bloom with the Pirates movies is in a similar... boat). And Matthew Lillard, for his part, has since made it a life's work to maintain Shaggy Rogers' on-screen existence, supplying his vocals to the cartoon man in every avenue demanding it after previous Shaggy/Kasem's death in 2009 (well, he couldn't have very well played his Ghostface Killer from Scream in perpetuity instead).

Now, out of all the multitudinous Scooby-Doo media over the eons, one of the greatest feats of imagination that caught my eye was Professor Pericles, the villain of the third most recent series, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013). Professor Pericles - a small blue bird which is apparently a parrot - is a former Mystery-solving group mascot who speaks with a German accent supplied by Udo Kier, and who aims to unleash the apocalypse with the aid of his assistants, machine-gun toting metal robots whom he commands in unsubtitled German (damn, why do kids always get all the best entertainment options? Has a single MCU villain been nearly as memorable as the above description of the Professor?).


Pericles, sadly, did not make this big new CGI animated film, which is kind of a prequel mixed in with a superhero (the unkindest s word!)-tinted story, as the Scooby-Doo gang form together as small children (and pups) in the past and then in the present join up with their mega-powered spin-off Blue Falcon (and his own trusted canine assistant, Dynomutt, Dog Wonder), to keep the forces of darkness at bay. They confront not much of the usual mystery but rather the villainy of perpetual 1970s cartoon bad guy Dick Dastardly, menacer of Wacky Races and inventor of the Electoral College, who in the 2020s has apparently dropped his trademark blue hat and commandeered his own army of little robot minions (so it's a street fight). Clearly, this a Scooby story that's been ballooned up from a sideways fog-tinted mystery to a big summer movie, and indeed, technically speaking, it's 2020's first, and the only film from May's original schedule to remain on the slab.

As has been tradition since Robin Williams in Aladdin and then the very expensive cast of Shrek, name live action stars have been flown in to take over characters previously carried by professional voice actors. The abovementioned Frank Welker is Scooby-Doo, but Zac Efron, who previously starred in, but not as, The Lorax, is now voicing Fred, heroically. Will Forte (hey, MacGruber!) is Shaggy, Amanda Seyfried is Daphne, and Gina Rodriguez plays Velma, with Mark Wahlberg (...really?) as their superhero and Ken Jeong as the film's other helpful canine assistant. Jason Isaacs is Dastardly, evil incarnate. Further film credits for Simon Cowell and Ira Glass elicit no response from me that is printable here, or anywhere.

Now, with world events interfering, the film has been forced off the stage and into the living-room, in a straight-to-streaming strategy that has certainly proved lucrative for Universal with Trolls 2; a release window particularly effective for children's films, and one that already has resonance for Scooby-Doo, given the character's long history with home entertainment, where the canine has clearly maintained relevance for two decades.

Now, In ranking this May's films, I assumed Scoob! would have outgrossed The Lovebirds - $134m total to $25m, perhaps? But their actual box office shall be one of life's great mysteries. We will just never know. Some good may come of all this, anyway. For one thing, perhaps Zac Efron, too, can find steady employment voicing Fred Jones for the next 51 years. Fred, like Zac, is not going anywhere.

2. The Lovebirds (May 22nd)
The Lovebirds is but one of 'two' comedies originally set for a theatrical release in April that Netflix has both bought and is willing to show us (the other, Bad Trip, is coming soon). They promise to work on the rest of the April schedule later.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani team-up as a couple who embark on a night on the town, where they must contend with such pains of big-city life as gangsters, secret sex societies, Pitch Perfect's Anna Camp, and other merry "one crazy night" cinema tropes. (this is not to be confused with a popular '80s subgenre, the movie that started with one crazy night and ended in the apocalypse - see The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Demons (1986), Miracle Mile (1989), and so on. Really, please do.)

As for The Lovebirds, it kind of looks like fun, even if, yes, the film Date Night thunders immediately to mind, and indeed the Rae/Nanjiani title's initial release date of April 3 was but ten years and six days away from Steve Carell and Tina Fey's film (thought I wouldn't notice, now did they?).

Both stars have been building up to this moment, incrementally, earning it. Rae moved from her HBO show to play the comedic best friend to an evil middle-aged woman turned evil teenage girl in Little (2019). And Nanjiani, too, rose from a few years of being another person's best friend to write and star, as himself of course, in The Big Sick (2017). So here we have two actors who are no one's chum any longer. Now, 'they' are the ones who have best friends, and it's a great feeling.

Michael Showalter, the Wet Hot American summer camp graduate who directed The Big Sick, reunites with Nanjiani here and adds a key quality credential. The film was set to premiere at SXSW, which means it was quite willing and ready to subject itself to reviews 20 days before its release. Whether that's a sign of confidence or an indifference to suicidal behaviour, I don't know. But I like movies about living through very long nights out in very big cities, apocalypse or not, and so Thursday night at 3AM when this sucker appears on my Netflix queue, I'll be watching.



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