Scooby-Doo holds a special place in my heart. I was of the generation that primarily grew up on the direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movies instead of any long-running show. As such, some of my earliest exposures to the Scooby-Doo universe were films like Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost, and Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase. With that in mind, the idea of a sequel to Zombie Island – my favorite of the animated Scooby-Doo films of the 1990s and 2000s – was both an appealing one and one that caused some trepidation. Zombie Island was one of the rare Scooby-Doo movies where the monsters turned out to actually be real and some of the more recent Scooby-Doo entries have placed an increased focus on ensuring that people don’t think the monsters are real. On the other hand, the trailer looked kind of fun and it could very easily be a very enjoyable experience to return to this movie I loved as a kid. So, I tried to go into this movie with an open mind; I didn’t expect anything as wonderful as the original Zombie Island, but I was hoping for something that was still enjoyable. In the end, Return to Zombie Island isn’t a very good sequel to Zombie Island but it is a pretty solid Scooby-Doo movie – at least for the first half. (Spoilers ahead!)
Scooby-Doo! Return to Zombie Island (written by Jeremy Adams, directed by Cecilia Aranovich & Hamilton Ethan Spaulding)
Join Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the Mystery Inc. gang as they win a vacation of a lifetime and attempt to put their mystery solving days behind them. As soon as they arrive to the tropical island, Velma, Daphne and Fred can’t help but notice how strangely familiar this island is, to a terrifying trip they once took decades ago. They soon find out paradise comes with a price when they encounter an army of zombies! Hop on board and travel with Scooby-Doo and the gang, as they unearth the mystery of Zombie Island in an original movie adventure!
Return to Zombie Island is a really weird beast. When you think of sequels, you think of stories that either directly continues the plotline of a previous movie or ones that continue the central themes. Return to Zombie Island does neither of these things. Story-wise, the only real relation to the original movie is that the action is once again on Moonscar island and there are zombies and werecats involved. Otherwise, none of the original side characters return and none of the events are really referred to outside of flashbacks and Velma’s incessant need to prove that that previous adventure didn’t happen the way the gang thinks it did – but more on that in a moment. Instead, we’re drawn into a story that ends up having two entirely different mysteries – who has brought the Scooby Gang to the island (and why) and what do these mysterious werecats want?
Both of these mysteries end up being pretty messy – though the second one easily takes the cake for being the messiest. The first one is so exaggerated that it feels like a Scooby-Doo episode on steroids as we’re quickly rushed from beat-to-beat of the mystery and it feels very obvious who the bad guy is. And, to be fair, that does end up kind of being on purpose as that first mystery is solved around the half-way mark of the film and it’s a pretty satisfying solution when all is revealed. This first mystery, while very easy to predict, is still pretty fun. There are a lot of great jokes (more on that later) and loving callbacks to older adventures and it just feels like a wonderful celebration of the series as a whole. Legitimately, I wish that mystery had just been the whole movie and they’d taken their time with it a bit more and really played up a number of elements within it.
Because after the mystery of who brought them to the island, why, and what’s going on in this weird hotel is solved, the second mystery (the mystery of the werecats) kicks in and everything just flies off the rails. The first half of the movie never really differentiates between the different threats, so it’s hard to really view the werecats any differently than we viewed the zombies (who had just been proven to be fake). Additionally, too much time is spent on side-plots instead of really exploring that mystery that when the mystery is solved, it feels very unsatisfying as we know next to nothing about the culprits involved. As a mystery, it’s way less interesting than the initial mystery of the movie and it’s so haphazardly handled that it brings down the enjoyment of the movie – especially as it’s coupled with Velma’s incessant need to disprove the events of the original Zombie Island.
Throughout the film, Velma insists that supernatural creatures don’t exist. This isn’t a unique idea to this film as most of the Scooby-Doo mythos is built around the idea that the monsters are just evil people in costumes. But Zombie Island was one of the few where that proved not to be the case. Velma was there and she accepted it at the time. I understand the idea that that mystery’s lack of a logical answer might haunt Velma, but it seems ridiculous that it would haunt her to the point that she’d not only refuse to believe what she, herself, had witnessed but would also cause her to repeatedly suggest that all of her friends had shared the same hallucination about those events. Velma’s always been a skeptic, but this is taken to a ridiculous level. She’s supposed to be the smart one, yet she refuses to look at the evidence before her eyes. Of course, in Return to Zombie Island, she ends up being correct and these new werecats actually are evil people dressed in costumes, but she tries to use the fact that this time, they weren’t real as proof that they weren’t real the first time, either, ignoring every shred of evidence she would have collected in that previous case. The amount of ways that Return to Zombie Island tries to imply events in previous Scooby-Doo movies didn’t happen the way we think they did is definitely something that pulled me right out of the movie and negatively impacted my enjoyment.
To be fair, the plots of Scooby-Doo movies aren’t really designed to draw in adult audiences, so perhaps that’s not the appeal for us. For me, the appeal of new Scooby-Doo stories is the atmosphere and the tone. Unfortunately, Return to Zombie Island‘s tone is a bit all over the place, too. At times, it feels almost like a parody of a Scooby-Doo movie, complete with many jokes about the tropes of Scooby-Doo stories (like who ends up doing what part of a trap, how convenient some things are, etc). There were so many satirical jokes that it almost felt like watching the 2002 live-action Scooby-Doo movie. That being said, those parts of the film are also easily the best parts of the film and that’s because all the times the film isn’t satirizing itself, it’s spent on those frustrating plotlines that aren’t actually enjoyable. Additionally, the movie flirts with some of the darker elements of the original Zombie Island film, but it never wants to commit to that tone the way the first movie did, so those scenes end up feeling really out of place within the context of an otherwise really light-hearted movie. I’d have really enjoyed the film had it gone that route, but if it wasn’t going to, it probably would’ve been best to just not flirt with it at all.
It may sound like I really didn’t like this movie, but that’s not the case. On the whole, I had a good time watching it. Sure, the whole thing is let down by a really weak final act that tries to retcon too much of the original Zombie Island, but the first forty minutes of the movie are really strong, really funny, and really enjoyable. The animation was surprisingly solid, though a bit less visually interesting than that in the original. The voice acting was pretty good (even though I don’t really like the new direction they’ve taken Scooby’s voice). I enjoyed a lot of the story beats that were set up in the beginning, even if I didn’t like how they were ultimately resolved. I really liked the idea and the solution of the first mystery – so much that I wish it had been the only mystery! A number of the ways that the film paid homage to the original Zombie Island were both really funny and really clever and I deeply enjoyed them. As a sequel to Zombie Island, it’s not great. It doesn’t really try to continue that story or its themes at all, and in the few moments that it does, it actively tries to change our perspective of that movie to one that is way less interesting. On the flip side, the times when the movie decides to be its own thing and is a fun, self-aware Scooby-Doo story are really, really fun. Not all of it works, but I found myself laughing more than I wasn’t and that’s more than I expected going into this movie. Don’t go into it looking for a movie anywhere as dark, engaging, or well-written as the original movie. But do go into it looking for a good time.
3 out of 5 wands.