Dolittle – Review
After many delays, Dolittle has finally arrived and with much more red flags than fanfare. It is a bad sign when a film has been in production for a couple of years, such as heavy reshoots, rewrites, and post-production retooling. It is a worse sign if its release date has bumped not once but twice. Worst of all, Universal is falling Robert Downey Jr.’s $175 million adventure from the dumping ground that is January. Subsequently came the trailers that were roundly educated online. And I guessed I might adore Dolittle.
As a child, I adored Hugh Lofting’s children’s books about the quirky physician who could talk to animals. For this day, I maintain a true affection to its campy charms of this 1967 adaptation, Doctor Dolittle, that starred a jaunty Rex Harrison. And in past Januarys, I have established an earnest defender of Monster Trucks and Serenity, maligned movies that were simply too damn strange to be marketed to the mainstream. I clung to trust that despite its flaws and checkered past, there could be some thing in this remake to celebrate. I was incorrect.
Loosely based on The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Dolittle starts not with its own original bizarre, but with a boy called Stubbins (a bland Harry Collett), that comes from a family of hunters but has a soft spot for animals. Desperate to save a squirrel he is reluctantly taken, Stubbins seeks out the now reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Downey), fatefully intruding as a royal mission falls to the animal lover’s lap. Along the way, they will face towering warships, a deadly dragon, and a hot, sulking pirate played with newly minted Academy Award-nominee Antonio Banderas. Thus, it is not all bad. Nonetheless, it’s bad.
The assumption is a nice jumping-off stage to unfurl spectacular set-pieces and a good deal of animal shenanigans. However, Dolittle is organised like it was composed by a room full of monkeys lazily banging on typewriters between ***-slinging, then cut together with a blind man with cracked fingers. An animated opening sequence does a whole lot of work to set up the characters and a tingling backstory. Subsequently Emma Thompson — as the plucky parrot Polynesia — provides exposition dumps during in voiceover that really does an embarrassing amount of heavy lifting. Thompson’s chipper voice is here for storytime, as if we are turning the page onto a photo book instead of watching a massively budgeted film led by the acclaimed helmer of Syriana, Stephen Gaghan.
It is really jarring the way the movie leaps in time and location without any warning or even explanation. You may well wonder if you drifted off and missed a scene here or there, such as the one where Dolittle apparently escapes out of a palace filled with armed and mad pirates. Characters aren’t so much released as pitched in haphazardly, such as James, a motor-mouthed dragonfly given by Jason Mantzoukas. Who’s James? Why does Dolittle trust him with this particular assignment? What is he trusting him to do?
So again and again in one shot into another, a character jolts from point A to point B with no connective tissues of the crossing. It is not edgy jump reductions. It is sloppy. And it happens in sequence after sequence between Dolittle facing carefully crafted CGI-animals. So, I began to wonder whether the shoot went so badly that Gaghan simply did not get the raw materials to make a cut that is not an absolute eyesore. Or was there a few ruthless studio notice that demanded that the family picture have an accessibly lean runtime (1 hour and 46 minutes), which directed the editing team to frantically shave moments by chopping the midst of actions? Either chance speaks to this disaster that Dolittle is.
Additional signs of a troubling”fix it in place” mentality can be seen at the movie’s absurd amount of ADR (additional dialogue recording), a frequent tool that is criminally abused here. So a lot of the dialogue can be easily tweaked in place to punch up smooth or jokes outside exposition drops, then animation created accordingly. What’s striking is just how much of their onscreen talent will not be revealed saying their lines. This hints at how heavily rewritten Dolittle have to have been. If you attempted to track this as a drinking game, you would probably pass out until the conclusion of the next act.
‘Okay,’ You may be thinking,’So, technically, it is a wreck. However, is it entertaining?’ Not really. Among the baffling choices in Dolittle, their leading physician is introduced as a grief-stricken grump who starts the film with a comically long depression beard. The crackling charm that Downey attracted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is drowned in his dour pantomimes as Dolittle pines for the spouse who’s fridged so fast that it would make Christopher Nolan blush. This woe-is-me widower angle sucks the fun out of Doctor Dolittle, leaving us with a barrage of creature cohorts that are mostly a lot of one-note jokes come into existence, such as the hive that confuses green vegetables for surgical tools. Repeatedly. Here is the only joke three-time Academy Award-nominee Octavia Spencer is awarded as Dab-Dab the duck.
When there are pieces with some sting (such as a dark joke Nanjiani’s ostrich makes about an omelet), the sole wholly effective element of Dolittle is its own villain. Where Downey is fumbling with a clumsy Welsh accent and mawkish melancholy, Sheen is on fire, incensed by Müdfly’s jealousy and embracing the house’s camp past. Having a serious goatee, bulging eyes, and a voice on the point of breaking into a squeal of rage, Sheen presents this fumbling movie a surge of electricity and hilarious pettiness. Perhaps the joke that demonstrated the most ridiculous nonetheless satisfying is when Dolittle mutters that the man is a”chinless wonder,” then the cut leaps across leagues of open ocean to Müdfly’s warship where he is looking through a spyglass and yelps,”I believe he said something about my chin” Sheen is the only one that seems to genuinely embrace what over-the-top pleasure this might have been. Bless him.
You may prefer the cast, the house, and have a healthy appreciation for large swings or”so bad it’s good” January dumps. But there is too little to appreciate in Dolittle. If you are a fan of Downey, the best that you can do is look the other way and allow this one pass on by.