Written by Musgo Del Jefe
This review for the newly released Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword marks my third straight review of one of the direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movies. In 2007, I gave Chill Out, Scooby-Doo a warm reception. I felt that it kept the spirit of the original series I remembered from the early '70s and it maintained the quality of production that was started with the first movie, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island in 1998. In 2008, the Halloween-timed release of Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King held much promise. But those were quickly dashed with a bumbling, magical story line that didn't have the humor or mysteries that make the series so enjoyable.
This year promises to be a busy one for the Scooby-Doo franchise. In the Fall we will get a new animated series, Scooby-Doo - Mystery, Inc. which promises to wash out the bad taste left from the oddly animated, Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue! That return to more old school mystery solving will coincide with the direct-to-TV release of a new live-action film, Scooby-Doo 3: The Mystery Begins. Both of these series promise a return to the mystery-solving premise of the original series. So, I was left wondering what I would get with Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword.
This film starts promisingly with an actual "real" setting of Tokyo, Japan. The pre-credit story gets rolling with a classic set-up of a father and son working in the museum and the father needing something to save the museum. There's a brief history of the Black Samurai and some armor is taken. The opening credits offer a nice change to the usually busy opening that often includes some form of chase through the opening titles. This one had an almost theatrical feel with more traditional movie instrumentation.
The new take on the Scooby-Doo score continues into the film. As we first meet the gang, I really enjoyed the cool, funky music that sounds like it was coming from real instruments. Warner Bros. has always had the best orchestra in town, I hope they've unleashed some of that for these features. The gang is all back and we know that we're moving into the 21st century with cell phones and text messages. By next movie, Daphne will be sending Tweets of their progress in solving the mysteries.
The razor-thin premise is pretty easy to pick up. Daphne has been invited to a Martial Arts Tournament because she's a world-class martial artist (yeah, that's right). This is actually an interesting set-up. Daphne is involved in a tournament that seems to be part Enter The Dragon and part Fantasy Island. I would be curious to see either of those plots developed. Don't forget too, a little of Karate Kid thrown in as Daphne seems to be overmatched but wins her fights. Plot-wise, these martial artists are also doing a double duty of protecting something called the "Destiny Scroll" which is something the Black Samurai would desire to steal. This is a good time for the gang to hit every Japanese stereotype including fireworks, Sumo wrestling, sushi, and some geisha. That is . . . until they are attacked by ninjas.
The second act begins at the 20-minute mark with our first "music video" chase scene. This battle with the ninjas is accompanied by a painfully titled song, "Doing The Samurai" (wait till I tell you about the next one). Like we've become accustomed to in the previous series and films, this scene includes clever costume changes, fooling the bad guys, and general slapstick humor. The difference here is that the ninjas actually steal the Destiny Scroll. Or, I should say, they think they do. It turns out that our gang still has the "real" Destiny Scroll and they use it to find the Sword Of Doom. The movie turns into much more traditional riddle-solving at this point. These are the fun moments of the film and I wish they could draw out the "mystery" aspect of it a little more. Solving a mystery doesn't always mean unmasking a bad guy. Sometimes it's more entertaining to have the clues put in front of the viewer and give them time to unravel the riddle. Here we are led to a Green Dragon where another riddle quickly leads us to the Sword Of Doom.
The discovery of the Sword of Doom lends itself to an almost too painfully recreation of the booby traps in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. As the gang is running away from the big rolling rock, you know exactly what is going to be on the other side. Of course, the Black Samurai is waiting and takes the sword. A chase ensues that seems like it will be the second "music video" but at the 40-minute mark, the Black Samurai is caught and unmasked. Just the "whatchu' talkin' 'bout, Willis", every character gets in their catchphrase in this scene, including the "meddling kids" line. All of the beats of a "normal" episode have been fulfilled. The movie could be over. That is . . . until they are attacked by robot ninjas.
The third act begins at the 50-minute mark with our second "music video" chase scene. The battle with the robot ninjas for the Sword of Doom takes place to the upbeat tune, "Domo Arigato, Sayonara" As painful as the song sounds, the action is pretty well choreographed. This time, our boys aren't successful and the "real" Black Samurai is going to have the Sword of Doom. Up to this point, the story has remained grounded in the "real" Scooby-Doo universe where monsters and ghosts are men in masks. It's at this point that I really checked out on the plot. Much of the excitement and action of these films is the comedy of the chase and the thin but fun mysteries that need to be solved to save a farm or hotel or museum.
From this point on, Shaggy and Scooby train to become samurai, meet a green dragon and find something called the Sword of Fate. The plot and effects are all overblown through the third act. What really works in a film like Chill Out, Scooby-Doo is the return of the human element to the stories. Battling ghosts and dragons with mystical weapons is best left to the Anime side of the aisle. The movie ends with a nice circle back to the beginning of the film, but the lessons of friendship and loyalty that are promised in the beginning are wasted by the sheer size of the story the writers try to tell in the end.
A terrific start for 2/3rds of the film is wasted in an overdone ending. I don't figure this is the end for the Scooby-Doo direct-to-video franchise. Alien Invaders and Cyber Chase couldn't kill it, I don't think this one will. I hope that the new series coming out will encourage a return to more mystery stories. It's a fantastically fun universe to play in - the writers know all of the beats they need to hit and it's fun even when you know they're coming. I hold this series to a little higher standard and I'm anxious to see what movie number fourteen holds in store.
The DVD includes only one Special Feature (I don't count Trailers as Special Features) - "Scooby-Doo Dojo!". What promises to be a look at the world of martial arts, is in reality, a disappointing feature that spends most of its time trying to teach kids moves that are so basic, you'd cover them in your first five minutes of a Free Pass at your local martial arts gym.