Before we dive into the full bulk of this installment’s topic, a little housekeeping on an important note...
No Fooling: The new Marvel animation block hits Disney XD on Sunday, April 1st. Similar in spirit to Cartoon Network’s DC Nation, the programming collective will be known as Marvel Universe and feature both the second season of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and the inaugural season of Ultimate Spider-Man. While USM is certainly highly anticipated, “Avengers” promises to stoke fans into a fervor prior to May’s feature film, particularly with a list of guests that includes the Fantastic Four, Dr. Doom, and the animated debut of the Guardians of the Galaxy. We’ll keep you updated as other dates and guests of note make the schedule.
Scooby-Doo: Mystery, Incorporated: Crystal Cove Curse (Season 1, Part 2): After their traditional (and infuriating) release of the first half of the season in single-DVDs featuring four episodes each, Warner Brothers went with the wishes of fans and issued the remaining 14 episodes of Scooby-Doo: Mystery, Incorporated in one affordable two-disc set. What viewers will find here is a series that hit its stride in completely unexpected ways. By far, it’s the most sophisticated animated iteration of Scooby-Doo in the franchise’s history, managing to walk that ever-tricky tightrope of being something that appeals to kids while being smart and savvy enough to entertain adults.
From an adult perspective, by far the best part of the show is the clever integration of genre tropes and pop culture touchstones. The first half of the season saw extended riffs on the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and James Cameron (“Howl of the Fright Hound” was a simply inspired mash-up of “Terminator” and “Aliens”). Among the episodes here, you’ll find broad swipes at classics like “Poltergeist” (“A Haunting in Crystal Cove”), the films of Clint Eastwood (“Dead Justice”, which also introduces a brilliant ‘80s-washed hot-rod driving detective character named, wait of it, Night Ranger), “Carrie” (“Where Walks Aphrodite”), “Fright Night” (appropriately, “NightFright”) and more.
On this score, the most awe-inspiring episode in the collection is “Mystery Solvers Club State Finals”. Acknowledging the trend of teens-solving-mysteries that ran riot at Hanna-Barbera in the wake of the success of the original Scooby-Doo, the episode brings together the casts of “Jabberjaw”, “Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels”, “Speed Buggy”, and “The Funky Phantom”. Taking the unique approach of putting the sidekicks in the lead, the episode takes giddy joy in having a dog, a caveman, a Curlyesque shark, a ghost and a freaking talking car solve the mystery. Another gem is “Escape from Mystery Manor”, an episode that blends the trap-filled haunted house genre with, of all things, “Saw”; of particular hilarity is the empty-pool sequence where Fred matches wits against their hidden antagonist, using half-a-dozen seemingly coincidental items to decode an escape route while Daphne runs through a monologue that captures her tangled relationship with the team’s leader.
If you flip the perspective and few the series from a kids’ level, then you might get a surprise. Even with all the references and in-jokes for moms and dads, the core of the Mystery Inc. gang remains true; the characters are funny simply by being themselves. On top of that, the complex mysteries actually can be followed by younger kids, and the season-long overarching mystery comes off as, remarkably, something of an educational experience as the kids need to remember plots and clues from along the way to stay present in the events. There’s a fairly tight continuity, and the show actually almost becomes instruction, breaking kids in on the notion that a mythology-heavy show is some of the most involving television that one can experience.
The real shocker of the season is, perhaps predictably, the final episode, “All Fear the Freak”. Not only are there some real surprises, it ends with a cliffhanger, thrusting Scooby-Doo into an almost action-hero type role, elevating one recurring antagonist into a prime arch-enemy and giving Scooby the motivation of reassembling the fragmented gang. It‘s a genuinely exciting direction, and essentially electrifies the set-up for next season.
In the final analysis, there will probably be skeptical readers out there that don’t think a traditionally kid-directed series (enjoyable as the classic episodes still are), can appeal to them as adult viewers. And yet, that’s exactly what it does. I give the total season my highest recommendation (and double that if you’ve got young people in your lives or your house). At the very least, it’s a fine way to introduce some more complex storytelling to the younglings.