Scooby-Doo; The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys


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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Directed by Peter Care

On their own terms (which is always the feeblest excuse for a critic) movies like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Scooby-Doo could easily be mistaken for complete and acceptable visions. Seen without context, they might even look like different movies, but both films spring from the same comic book/cartoon sensibility that now dominates pop culture reflections of human experience. Though made by adults, these films look at life in the limited way that pop-saturated teenagers trivialize it.

Crack Altar Boys open and Scooby-Doo is at its heart: the non-realistic, fantasy exposition of teenage life as an adventure beyond one's conscious control. Although the former is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by the late Chris Fuhrman and the latter on a Hanna-Barbera cartoon tv series, neither film is morally serious. Both narratives are about the way teenagers resort to fantasy as a means of solving everyday problems. Scooby-Doo's van-load of teens?Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini), Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and their dog Scooby?are sometimes detectives of the paranormal who call their clique Mystery Inc. They parallel Altar Boys' junior-high best friends, Tim (Kieran Culkin) and Francis (Emile Hirsch), who resist their Catholic school teaching by attempting life-threatening pranks (the first is nicely symbolic: standing beneath a crucifix-like electrical pole as it falls). The pals also collaborate on a hand-drawn comic book series they sacrilegiously call "The Atomic Trinity." Altar Boys is actually set in the 70s, while the modern-day Scooby-Doo still represents the trivial essence of 70s youth-pop. Updating that center-of-the-universe fallacy, Scooby-Doo's parodistic ridicule of superstition is a version of Altar Boys' teen-pop godlessness. Neither film is actively subversive; religion and the paranormal are viewed by each set of characters as social obstacles to be withstood or overcome. In Scooby-Doo the quest is goofy, in Altar Boys it's maudlin.

Seeing experience this way, rather than as the credible dread of a Catholic-manque movie like Heaven Help Us or a sophomoric satire like Dogma, is the undeniable result of pop cosseting youth. Would-be artists who grew up with the blandishments of comic book/cartoon culture and action-comedies like The Goonies automatically conceive their own feelings in jokey Scooby-Doo and Marvel comic terms (the template for "The Atomic Trinity"). That explains the thinness of the drama in Altar Boys' routine story of Tim and Francis combating the martinet nun Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) and the school's distracted Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio). The characterizations are familiar rather than recognizable. Tragic Hanna-Barbera figures.

It's been a long time since I've seen a movie featuring a ring binder and lined looseleaf pages covered by crudely scrawled monsters and superheroes (maybe the documentary Crumb was the last time), but though it certainly produces echoes, the reverb in Altar Boys is tinny and hackneyed. The way Tim, Francis and their other comic-drawing friends discuss girls and their comics-publishing plans and ride their bikes isn't really evocative. These scenes are simply intended to seem authentic. Director Peter Care never penetrates the imaginative life of young upstarts, nor does he express the mischievous urge that connects vandalism to iconoclastic rebellion. There's something nagging Tim and Francis?as well as Margie (Jena Malone), the sad but nice girl beset by sexual confusion. Yet their anxieties are never palpable. Altar Boys is a film about frustration, but Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell exemplify frustration more than they portray it, because their means of articulation have been stunted by the fallacious tradition of teen comics.

I know this sounds like true sacrilege to fans of The Matrix and Spider-Man, but recent graphic-novel film adaptations have shown that the comic book form is primarily suited to adolescent revenge fantasy, nothing more complex. That's the extent of Altar Boys' animated segments, devised by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. These hyperbolic, Gothic/sci-fi exaggerations of Tim and Francis' pent-up emotions portray them as super-potent, muscle-bound warriors. And yes, McFarlane's pen has a panache that former music video director Care can't even touch. But it's also far from the William Blake poetry and drawings that Tim frequently refers to. McFarlane's cartoon fantasies are lamely anticlerical?not yearning or idiosyncratic. Just portraits of young men developing into geeks, not artists.

That McFarlane's images have nothing to do with the eschatological or Catholicism seems proof that youth-pop has failed to develop beyond stock imagery. Think of Marco Bellocchio's searing, hallucinatory Nel Nome del Padre, which combined surrealism with schoolboy fright (in the 70s it was, alongside Scorsese's Mean Streets, the most powerful film depiction of the anguish of Catholic guilt). Altar Boys lacks the visual means to take guilt seriously. Disconnected from their characters' moral quandaries, the filmmakers settle for youth-cult sentimentality. (The only new element?which probably comes from Jodie Foster's other role as the film's producer?is the dramatization of Margie's feminist misery.) Overall, despite the hipness of its comic-book sensibility, Altar Boys dissipates its emotional effect. Peter Chelsom's more traditional boyhood melodrama The Mighty (which also starred Kieran Culkin) wasn't about comic books but it became mythic, spiritual?and moving?without any pop condescension.

?Hipster critics are likely to be condescending to Scooby-Doo, but if they were consistent?if they were honest?they'd rank Scooby-Doo with such pop junk as tv's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The difference between all three banal entertainments is not art or innocence but merely attitude. At age nine one prefers Scooby-Doo, at age 12 (or 32) one prefers Buffy and Spider-Man, believing one has advanced. Critic Gregory Solman summarized this phenomenon when explaining why Star Wars fans got exercised over Jar Jar Binks. "They're embarrassed by the thing they've outgrown," Solman reasoned. If not for such postadolescent defensiveness, more people would recognize how Scooby-Doo (hardly the worst film of the summer) exposes the delusions of youth pop.

Like last year's Josie and the Pussycats movie, the layers of self-parody and actual venality are hard to discern. But this, clearly, is a less egregious film. If only because the plot actually subjects heinous teen-pop culture to ridicule. "It's some kind of brainwashing machine," says Velma when Mystery Inc. discovers a madman's plot to body-snatch fun-loving teens. Josie and the Pussycats winked at this problem as the triumph of commercialism; Scooby-Doo is too innocent to pretend there is no problem. There's some apt cultural targeting?as when the brainwashed (mostly white) kids speak a ludicrous appropriation of hiphop lingo, and a nearly superb farcical moment when the Mystery Inc. quartet exchange souls as if in a teen-pop parody of musical chairs.

But Scooby-Doo is only a satire inadvertently. Television cartoons get adapted into live-action movies (the dog Scooby is now a Jar Jar Binks-like f/x) with the fidelity that used to be paid to stage plays, but the reason in this non-literate, ADD era is simply to extend a kiddie franchise. Scooby's cultural horror will come clearer next week when Daphne/Sarah Michelle Gellar essays her first serious film role in James Toback's unhyped Harvard Man. Toback's film takes the next step in youth movies, turning drug/sex/social experimentation into fierce, yet sweet, psycho-farce. Gellar should be touting Harvard Man. Instead, she's kowtowing to the Scooby machine, telling E! Entertainment: "It's about taking this iconic character and almost paying homage to it." Her "almost" almost saves face.





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