He’s not just a people person.
Yo, Cats (2019), hold my beer!*
If you thought last month’s nightmare-fuel misfire Cats was awful, wait until you get a load of Dolittle — a film so vile, it needs to be seen to be believed; however, I do heartily advise that you don’t go see it. I kid you not, but the film climaxes with Robert Downey Jr.’s animal physician performing a colonoscopy on a CGI dragon by shoving a leek up its butt to dislodge pieces of armor and a bagpipe clogging its rectum. ‘We are all animals,’ he states, right after being rewarded with a giant-ass fart in his by the fire-breathing behemoth — who, I ask rhetorically, directed this crap?!
Well, it comes courtesy of the Academy Award-winning writer of Traffic (2000) and director of Syriana (2005), Stephen Gaghan, who seems an odd choice to helm a $175 million children’s movie. Presumably, incorporating CGI animals with live actors and staging some large, intricate VFX set pieces would be more suited to a proven blockbuster filmmaker. Indeed, a correct presumption, as Dolittle undertook lengthy and apparently expensive reshoots after receiving poor reception from test screening audiences, with filmmaker Jonathan Liebesman of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) fame reportedly brought in to salvage the shipwreck. Still, a sinking vessel is a sinking vessel, and Dolittle speedily finds its way to Davy Jones’s locker with more haste than Renny Harlin’s infamous buccaneer bomb Cutthroat Island (1995). It’s a painful cinematic experience, complete with infantile humor and dialogue, one-dimensional heroes and villains, and little to no character motivation. The digital effects work is good, but that’s a small pocket of light in an overall shoddy affair.
Dolittle is written — in crayon, probably, and on sheets of butchers paper — by Gaghan and a roster of other scribes — there are five writers on this film! — who do a massive disservice to characters created by English author Hugh Lofting. The picture opens with a beautifully animated storybook-like prologue about love and loss, narrated by Emma Thompson’s macaw Polynesia, Dolittle’s most trusted advisor. The sequence details John Dolittle’s voyages, and the beginnings of his animal sanctuary, as well as the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) at sea and his consequent confinement, with the Doc cutting himself off from society and shutting the doors to his animal clinic, having contact only with the furred and feathered kind, who, as we all know, he can converse with — there’s more depth in the opening than in the rest of the 101-minute feature. Perhaps the studio could be persuaded to release the sequence as a short film as a way to recoup some of the already inevitable losses.
Several years later, the isolated veterinarian is visited by the young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) after he accidentally shoots and wounds a squirrel named Kevin (Craig Robinson) while hunting with his uncle and cousin. The boy is led to the grass-choked animal hospice by Polynesia (or Poly for short). Consequentially, Dolittle is summoned to see Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) on the very same day with the bedridden Monarch asking him to meet her at Buckingham Palace, and therefore hauling Dolittle out of his self-imposed isolation. Queen Vicky needs Dolittle’s help to cure her of a mysterious sickness — she’s been poisoned by deadly nightshade, and it will very soon claim her life, before the next eclipse for the inevitable race against time trope. The antidote is the healing Eden Fruit, found on a mysterious faraway island, its location documented in Lily’s journal, which is not yet in the widower’s possession. And so, the Doctor ventures out with his animal companions and self-appointed apprentice, Tommy, to save the Queen of England. Oh, the mighty colonial adventures we are all about to undertake!
Inspired by the 1922 The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and featuring many of the characters from the beloved books — Tommy, for instance, acts as narrator for a bunch of the stories — this Dolittle interpretation is much more in line with Lofting’s writings. While there have been several adaptations — Eddie Murphy donned the lab coat and stethoscope in 1998’s Doctor Dolittle, which was a more comedic, contemporary take, and its subsequent sequel, Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001) — Gaghan’s film tries to be more loyal to the source — by setting it in the Victorian era and following pre-existing material — but it fails on the whole. It’s almost as if Dolittle’s cinematic exploits are doomed to succeed just like the 1967 movie musical, which was such a box office dud that it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, despite starring Rex Harrison hot off his Oscar win for My Fair Lady (1964). Either way, this update isn’t doing the IP any favors.
Robert Downey Jr. — who serves as a producer on this thing and is one of the people at fault for dropping the ball — this time around, plays the eponymous doctor. His take on the titular character is a misguided attempt at mimicking Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series. Downey Jr. snorts, barks and squeals through many of his lines (quite literally) as he chats with animals, putting on an unsavoury, perplexing, incomprehensible Welsh accent while talking to humans — you can barely make out what he’s saying half the time. It’s a putrid performance — one for the dogs — almost guaranteeing Iron Man’s return to the MCU — Downey Jr. may be suiting up again sooner than you think.
Gaghan has somehow assembled a talented big-name cast to voice the various CGI critters populating Dolittle’s menagerie, but many of their renderings are clumsy, clunky, and directionless, with most of the vocal choices rubbing against the animal designs. Rami Malek — who deserves to have his Oscar for Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) revoked — probably fares worst as anxious gorilla Chee-Chee, and John Cena, Bumblebee (2018), best as a bashlyk-wearing polar bear named Yoshi, the former pro-wrestler-turned-actor coming out of this mess with his reputation relatively unscathed. The rest of the voice cast range from abysmal (we have Tom Holland playing a dog with glasses, and Octavia Spencer a duck with a peg leg) to pretty unpleasant (there’s Ralph Fiennes’ gold-tooth tipped tiger Barry, and Jason Mantzoukas voicing a wisecracking dragonfly, umm, cool?).
The human stars are similarly terrible — we have a couple of pantomime-like bad guys in Michael Sheen’s Dr. Blair Müdfly, a mustache-twirling rival schoolmate of Dolittle’s, and Jim Broadbent’s thinly-written Lord Thomas Badgley, one of the Queen’s chairmen, with the usually excellent Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose (2018), angrily grumbling lines while lying in bed as the ailing empress. And then we have Antonio Banderas, The Mask of Zorro (1998), the second person here trying to rip-off Depp’s iconic mascara-wearing swashbuckler, playing King Rassouli, Lily’s disgruntled father and John’s ex-father-in-law.
The script itself is particularly ghastly and can be to blame for the many, and I mean many, bungles and blunders. There’s an abundance of first draft gags and ridiculous narrative choices, one too many to point out, but let’s do a couple for fun; Young Tommy, for example, puts on an overtly fake beard to disguise himself from somebody he’s never met (okay then), while adversaries pop up left, right, and center with little to no personality or motive, and things seem to happen just because. Although much closer spiritually to Lofting’s texts, the whole affair never captures the essence of the animal vet or that sense of wonder that we’re promised in the film’s introduction, and its lean runtime seems to drag. The story itself is far from engaging or exciting as it flatlines almost instantly. As a film, Dolittle has next to no identity, borrowing heavily from a heap of superior family adventure yarns.
I suspect it’ll keep little ones glued to the screen — children still love talking animals, even though they’re so overdone nowadays — catering to its core audience and, frankly, nobody else; according to an article published in the Wall Street Journal, the additional photography was undertaken to make the film ‘sillier’ — aiming it more towards the younger crowd, and that will most likely work for them. However, kids don’t notice (generally speaking) things like workmanlike set pieces, over-reliance on VFX, or bad storytelling, given that they’re A) far too young and B) haven’t seen as many films as us seasoned critics.
Ultimately, this is a movie that strives for mediocrity yet still flunks miserably — it’s an embarrassment for all involved. As a film set to launch a new franchise for Robert Downey Jr. to steer, this is a Dark Universe level disaster. Remember Universal Pictures’ Monster Movie interconnected universe? I don’t blame you if you don’t, but I’ll just mention Tom Cruise and the title The Mummy (2017). Dolittle is Marmaduke (2010) bad. It’s a big middle finger to animals and animal lovers everywhere. Those with a fondness for the four-legged kind should save their money or donate it to the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund instead.
*There’s some good eating for Jennyanydots and her Jellicle friends to be found in the cast of Dolittle.
1.5 / 5 – Poor
Reviewed by S-Littner
Dolittle is released through Universal Pictures Australia