Circuses are supposed to be happy places, but as any kid who has ever been emotionally scarred by a clown knows, it doesn’t take much to flip the switch from bright and sunny to creepy and terrifying. Show them a dark circus at night, or a clown outside of the very narrow range of settings and situations in which clowns are acceptable, and most children are going to need a change of underwear.
Scooby Doo has always sought milder scares, but it has exploited the dual nature of the circus from the start. It took only until the tenth episode for an evil clown, the memorably menacing Ghost Clown from “Bedlam in the Big Top,” to show up, and throughout its history writers hard-pressed to come up with something fresh have repeatedly mined the creepy circus and its cousins, the creepy carnival and creepy amusement park, for Scooby Doo’s kid-friendly fright.
Big Top Scooby Doo!, the new Scooby Doo direct-to-video (DTV) movie released on Blu-Ray, embraces both the sunny and creepy sides of the carnival. All of the menacing elements are there, but the Scooby Gang also get a chance to spice up their usual mystery-solving by going undercover, as much as that’s possible with a talking dog along, as circus performers.
The movie resists the obvious route of making the villain another evil clown. This time it’s a werewolf. That’s, um, not more original, because Scooby Doo history is swimming in werewolves, but at least it’s an interesting combo.
The plot is standard, simple Scooby Doo. The Scooby Gang is on vacation, as much as that’s possible for people who don’t seem to have real jobs, and investigate a circus because their leader, Fred Jones, simply really wants to and ignores the objections of everyone else. The circus is dark, creepy, and seems deserted when they get there, but they trespass anyway because that’s kind of their thing.
At the circus they get confronted by the owner, because trespassing. But fortunately the werewolf attacks at that time and they agree to go undercover to solve the mystery.
You see, the werewolf has been stealing gems from places everywhere the circus goes. If you are annoyed by the fact that this makes it completely obvious that the werewolf is a circus employee in disguise and that the mystery should take 15 minutes to solve, tops, then you really should be reading Agatha Christie novels instead of watching Scooby Doo.
Because instead of recklessly jumping to that conclusion, Velma digs up and old book from somewhere and formulates a theory that the werewolf is stealing gems to allow it to mystically control its transformations.
The Scooby gang’s investigation is mostly an excuse for a lot of funny scenes of each cast member doing circus tricks. Daphne gets a clown act and a daredevil motorcycle act; Fred barely survives becoming a trapeze artist; Scooby and Shaggy do a trained dog act; and Velma very reluctantly becomes a human cannonball.
Each performance leads to a subplot, mostly helping the Scooby gang learn more about the circus performers and the mystery, although Shaggy and Scooby’s leads to a brief bump in their friendship when Shaggy takes credit for “training” Scooby.
Anyway, there’s a lot action, comedy, and chasing around as usual. Yes, you’ll probably guess who the villains are way before the Scooby gang figures it out, but that’s part of the fun.
My favorite thing about this movie was that it was actually funny. As a diehard Scooby fan, I’ve gotten many pleasures from the show over the years, but witty writing hasn’t always been one of them. This DTV, though, has great one-liners, callbacks to Scooby history, and physical comedy. One recurring joke, for example, has Shaggy see danger, give some exposition about it, then suggest to Scooby that they run away, only to turn around and see Scooby already halfway down the street.
The characters also do some self-aware commentary on the situations and the series. Shaggy talks at length about the creepiness of circuses and the stupidity of trespassing in dark and deserted ones. A guy with one of the Scooby show’s standard fake sounding accents comments on how fake his accent is. And Daphne talks about how much she loves to hear the “And I would have gotten away with it …” line that closes most episodes. But it never slips into self-parody and is mostly played as straight Scooby Doo.
I’m very glad that the Scooby movies that have been produced in recent years have stuck to the traditional, simple Scooby Doo format instead of adapting the style of Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated. That is a great show, but the complex mysteries and relationship drama get tiring and take the focus off comedy.
The movies are more like an updated take on the What’s New Scooby Doo? series. Thankfully no one appears to be dating, Fred has his “knucklehead” personality, Velma is a little bit shy, Daphne is a confident danger girl, and Scooby and Shaggy are as cowardly and hungry as always.
The animation, however, is a big step up from What’s New. These DTV’s went back to some of the traditional Scooby stylistic elements, like not coloring in the eyes of the human characters and a general retro feel to shapes and colors, and it looks great here. There is also some subtle, toon-shaded CGI mixed in to add more movement to the scenes and it works well.
The only thing that lets it down is the werewolf. It’s really silly looking. Of course Scooby Doo movies are never supposed to be scary enough to truly frighten children, but the werewolf goes a little too far in the wrong direction.
The voice cast does a great job as always. Matthew Lillard has smoothly stepped into the role of Shaggy, and is such a worthy follow-up to Casey Kasem’s version that I’m happy with him doing it for as long as he wants.
The bonuses on this disc are almost enough to make it a mini themed collection. It features three circus-themed episode: the aforementioned “Bedlam in the Big Top,” from the original show; “The Ghouliest Show on Earth” from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo; and “Menace of the Manticore” from Mystery Incorporated. Actually, “Menace of the Manticore” is a cheat because that features a creepy amusement park, but it’s still a good episode.
Scooby has had his ups and downs over the years, but the recent DTV series has hit a level of consistent quality that makes each one worth waiting for. If you like meddling kids, cowardly dogs, creepy circuses, and not thinking too hard about mysteries, then buy a ticket and check out this show.