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SCOOB – Tom Holkenborg

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Scoob is the latest movie to star Scooby-Doo, the cowardly canine crime-fighter who, along with his best friend Shaggy and the other members of Mystery Inc., have been unmasking cartoon villains since they first debuted on CBS in 1969. There have been literally dozens of TV shows starring the character, as well as an astonishing 40 straight-to-video movies between 1987 and 2019, but only two projects premiered on the big-screen: the 2002 live-action film Scooby-Doo starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and it’s 2004 sequel ‘Monsters Unleashed’. This film was intended to be the third cinematic outing, but the COVID-19 outbreak nixed that idea, and instead it premiered straight-to-streaming in May 2020. The film is a CGI animated adventure directed by Tony Cervone, and is a sort of re-imagined and re-booted origin story about how Scooby-Doo met Shaggy as a puppy, how they first teamed up with Fred, Velma, and Daphne to form Mystery Inc., and what happened on their first adventure and beyond. Scoob is also intended to be a launching point for a larger Hanna-Barbera ‘shared universe’ series, as the film also features such characters as Blue Falcon and Dyno-Mutt, Dick Dastardly and Muttley, and Captain Caveman, among others. It also has an absolutely stellar voice cast, including Will Forte, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Isaacs, Amanda Seyfried, Ken Jeong, Tracy Morgan, Zac Efron, Henry Winkler, and many more!

One of the most interesting things to have happened in all of film music over the last couple of years is the emergence of Tom Holkenborg as a good composer. As most people who regularly read this site know, when he first started working in film in the mid-2010s I found most of his music to be terrible, and I still maintain that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most-overrated scores in recent history. However, over the course of the last four years, the Dutchman has slowly and continually raised his game. Through scores like The Dark Tower, Mortal Engines, Alita: Battle Angel, and Sonic the Hedgehog from earlier this year, the quality, depth, and inventiveness in Holkenborg’s music has grown exponentially. He has embraced a much richer orchestral sound, there is much more detail and nuance in what he is doing, and the genres he has been choosing to score (fantasy, sci-fi, children’s adventures) have given him the opportunity to write music that is just plain fun. Scoob is another score to add to that list.

Taking his lead from the anarchic tone of the project as a whole, Holkenborg approached Scoob by throwing every musical idea he could think of at his score, just to see what stuck. He combines a big and powerful orchestra with a whole host of electronics, quotes from classical music, intentional pastiches of Bernard Herrmann, and so much more. Quite a lot of the music tends to be somewhat mickey-mousey, jumping all over the place from style to style to style, often several times within the same cue, but as anyone who has studied the music of Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley will tell you, that type of writing is difficult to do well, and Holkenborg’s attempt to recapture that sense of zaniness and constant movement is admirable and mostly successful.

The score opens, logically and appropriately, with a fantastic new Dick Dale-style surf-rock instrumental arrangement of the classic Scooby-Doo TV theme by David Mook and Ben Raleigh, but then begins in earnest with “Sandwich Bonding,” which offers some sweet and playful textures for pizzicato strings and various woodwinds to underscore the initial fateful meeting between Shaggy and Scooby when they were both youngsters. This style of writing continues into the lovely and sentimental “Scooby’s Collar,” which cements their relationship further, and offers the first hints of a recurring theme that follows them throughout the story.

The rest of the music is action-packed all the way, but what’s good about it is its variety. There are essentially three action styles in play here, beginning with action of the traditional ‘Mystery Inc.’ style that involves haunted mansions, spooky corridors, and Old Man Withers in a rubber mask. Jinkies! Then there is action relating specifically to the nefarious Dick Dastardly and his army of robotic ‘Rottens,’ which tends to significantly increase the electronic aspect of the score. And finally there is action relating to Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades, the release of which is revealed to be Dastardly’s end game, and which has a massive scale and epic scope that is greater and more intense than virtually anything else in Holkenborg’s filmography.

The first third of the score is the ‘haunted action,’ comprising cues like “Haunted House” and “First Case Solved”. Here Holkenborg explores an array of spooky textures and creepy orchestral atmospherics, punctuated by bold explosions of bombastic orchestral action and chase music. There is a lot of fun to be had here in the details; I especially like the prominent use of xylophones in the percussion underneath a lot of the action, which seems to be intentionally similar to how the late great Hoyt Curtin would use them to mimic the movement of Shaggy’s legs in the instant before he bolted away from a spooky ghost. There is also some fun writing for cool and funky guitars, rhythmic strings, and modern percussion, that relates to the arrangement of “Scooby-Doo Where Are You” from the first cue, and slowly coalesces into a new musical identity for Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby – the Mystery Inc. as a whole

The middle third of the score follows the initial encounters, several years later, between Scooby-Doo, Mystery Inc., and Dick Dastardly. The first 90 seconds of “Bowling for Robots” is an anarchic jazz/funk/surf rock instrumental, replete with Hammond organs, electric guitars, and rock percussion, and is tons of fun. However, as the cue develops, it starts to incorporate influences from elsewhere – bolder orchestral forces, a variation on the Mystery Inc. theme underpinned by a sort of trip-hop/dance music electronic beat, caper-like spy music that has a pseudo-Mission Impossible vibe, and several spooky other-worldly textures enlivened by a Bernard Herrmann-style Theremin.

The next five cues, from “Battle with Dastardly” through to the end of “Hall of Mirrors,” is essentially one long sequence of action music, and this is the music that is likely to prove the most polarizing, because it contains the harshest and most abrasive electronic ideas in the entire score. Although the orchestral writing is strong throughout, the electronics get equal billing here, and often take center stage. I’m terrible at describing synthesizer textures, but the overall feel of them in these cues comes across like a mix between the smooth tones of Daft Punk’s score for Tron Legacy and old school 1990s dubstep. The way the orchestra and electronics constantly fade in and out and over each other also actually reminds me a little of what Olivier Derivière did with his video game score Remember Me, which for some will be a positive thing. Holkenborg’s musical heritage as a DJ in the nightclubs of Ibiza allows the whole thing to have an authentic sound – in fact, towards the end of “Hall of Mirrors,” there is a sequence that contain what sounds like turntable scratching, to really complete the classic electronica references.

Throughout all of this, Holkenborg’s pure action writing is quite superb. Parts of “Air Battle with Dastardly” are enormous, filled with bold and rousing brass fanfares, while later in “Amusement Park Arrival” there are a number of magical and revelatory orchestral crescendos, accented by the Theremin, a solemn piano motif, and the first appearance of a subtle choir. “Dastardly Attacks” is thrilling and fast paced, “Entry of the Gladiators” is a rousing new version of Julius Fučík’s famous military march (now forever associated with circus clowns), and “Gang Escapes” is a dark, aggressive piece full of abstract and grating electronica, but which also allows for some references to the Scooby & Shaggy friendship idea.

However, it is the final third of the score which will garner the most attention, as it contains some of the most thrilling and sophisticated orchestral action writing of Holkenborg’s career to date. The plot has shifted to something much more grandiose by this point, and now involves literal trips to other dimensions, lost islands, and monsters from Greek mythology, and Holkenborg’s music reflects this change by reducing the electronic component significantly, and concentrating much more on symphonic writing. “Legend of Cerberus/Muttley’s Story” is unexpectedly mysterious and emotional, and contains the first appearance of a hauntingly beautiful duduk melody which, unbelievably, appears to be a tragic motif associated with both Cerberus (the three-headed dog of Greek myth) and Muttley, Dick Dastardly’s snickering canine companion. If you had told me that Holkenborg would one day write music that casts Muttley as a sympathetic figure, I would have never believed you – but here we are. “Mystery Island Landing” continues on with more writing for duduk, more moments of orchestral revelation, and additional ethnic woodwind ideas, all underpinned with cascading electronic effects.

“Athens Arrival” is where the score really begins to leave its mark. It’s the first part of a three-cue 11-minute sequence of stunning action music that also comprises the cues “Cerberus Unleashed” and “Blue Falcon”. The music in this trio of cues is just superb; it abounds with huge orchestral fanfares, glorious choral majesty, and thrilling action rhythms, and regularly brings back ideas from earlier in the score – the duduk melody, the rock percussion, the Mystery Inc. espionage theme, the cool electronica – to maintain thematic and textural consistency. The scale of the music in “Cerberus Unleashed” is especially impressive; the action ostinatos that erupt around the 1:30 mark are phenomenal, densely-packed layers of brass, strings, and choir that resound with thunderous power. The finale of the similar-sounding “Blue Falcon” can only be described as heroic and epic.

The climax of the score is where Holkenborg replaces power with emotion, beginning with “Dick Finds Muttley,” which has no right to be as beautiful as it is. Holkenborg blends the orchestra and chorus together with a sense of grandeur and destiny, and then reprises the mournful Cerberus/Muttley duduk theme. The conclusive “Noble Sacrifice” – which appears to relate directly to actions Shaggy takes to save his friends – is initially somewhat dark and brooding, but then becomes quasi-angelic, featuring a solo violin and choir backed by an poignant-sounding orchestra. The final two minutes of the score are sweetly touching, and then the whole thing ends with a final reprise of the Mystery Inc. theme.

Beyond the facts that some people may find the occasionally chaotic tonal shifts a little too scatterbrained for their tastes, and that some people may find the electronic elements in the middle section of the score a little too overbearing, perhaps the only criticism I can level at the score is this: Holkenborg may have missed a stellar opportunity to work new, richly orchestrated arrangements of the classic cartoon themes for Dastardly & Muttley (stop the pigeon!), Blue Falcon & Dynomutt, and Captain Caveman, into the score somehow. I don’t know how much research Holkenborg did into those things beforehand (he may have done a lot, and discounted the idea as being unworkable), but if you listen to the original versions of the latter two especially, I believe there could have been scope for taking some of the basic elements of those themes and making them much more grandiose – there is a brilliant brass motif running through Captain Caveman’s theme that could easily have been turned into an action ostinato, for example.

In the end, I’m actually quite astonished at how accomplished Scoob is, and how much satisfaction I got from hearing it. Tom Holkenborg’s writing has become so much richer, so much more impressively complicated, and so much more intellectually stimulating over the past three or four years, that I can barely believe that this is the same composer who wrote such turgid works as Divergent and Deadpool as recently as 2016. It’s now gotten to the stage where, rather than groaning whenever I hear that he has been assigned to a new project, I’m actually excited to see what he is going to do next, and this is a good and positive thing.

Buy the Scoob soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (written by David Mook and Ben Raleigh) (1:26)
  • Sandwich Bonding (1:04)
  • Scooby’s Collar (0:47)
  • Haunted House (1:53)
  • First Case Solved (0:48)
  • Bowling for Robots (3:04)
  • Air Battle with Dastardly (2:50)
  • Dick and the Rottens (2:13)
  • Amusement Park Arrival (1:23)
  • Dastardly Attacks (0:56)
  • Hall of Mirrors (2:39)
  • Entry of the Gladiators (written by Julius Fučík) (1:11)
  • Gang Escapes (2:53)
  • Legend of Cerberus/Muttley’s Story (3:14)
  • Mystery Island Landing (1:05)
  • Dastardly Surprise (1:28)
  • Athens Arrival (4:39)
  • Cerberus Unleashed (3:15)
  • Blue Falcon (3:45)
  • Dick Finds Muttley (1:49)
  • Noble Sacrifice (5:39)

Running Time: 48 minutes 02 seconds

Watertower Music (2020)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Conducted by Conrad Pope. Orchestrations by Jonathan Beard, Benjamin Hoff, Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson and Tom Holkenborg. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel and Tom Holkenborg. Edited by Daniel McLean. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg.

  1. June 2, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    Excellent review.

  1. January 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

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