Dolittle. 2020. Written by Stephen Gaghan Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, from a screen story by Thomas Shepard from the books by Hugh Lofting. Directed by Stephen Gaghan (reshoots by uncredited Johnathan Lieberman). Starring Robert Dowey Jr, Michael Sheen, Antonio Bandaras, John Cena, Emma Thomson, Rami Malek, Tom Holland, Kumail Nanjiani. PG. 1h41m.
After several delays, reshoots, and an astonishing 180 million dollars in spending, the Robert Downey, Jr produced and starred Dolittle, based upon the Hugh Lofting stories I’ve never read (previously adapted in the also troubled 1967 Rex Harrison version I kinda remember and with Eddie Murphy in 1998 which I saw once), has finally been released into theaters. In a mid-January slot. Perhaps another delay was necessary, as Doolittle, as it is, is not a complete film. Not in the same way of incomplete visual effects like Cats, but in story and action sequences.
But maybe it’s for the best at this point. Cut the losses and forget about it. A day after watching it, I’m sure I’ve forgotten much of it already. How else can I explain the missing memories of whole action sequences and back-ground information? Either my mind has deleted them for more room for useless knowledge of the history of Dracula adaptations or they were never there to begin with.
I’m not joking. I AM filled with useless knowledge about Dracula! And the movie is missing whole parts, wretched from an editor’s hands as he screams “I’M NOT DONE! I need to put in clean-up scene, the storm, and more than one shot of sneaking into the castle! Oh, and I need to put in the Eden tree and its island story!”. Downey runs off mumbling in a bad Welsh accent yelling back “too late, chap! Movie’s due, gotta go!”
As was X-Men Dark Phoenix and Hellboy of last year’s worst list, Dolittle is film where you can feel and see the re-shoots while watching it. It’s a jumbled together mess of half-done plots, dropped in characters, and ideas, with bad ADR, and two bland kid actors who visibly grow younger or older between shots due to a long schedule.
Dolittle is a forgettable fluff of a family adventure film. It is filled with a false whimsy that feels manufactured to be commented “oh isn’t that cute?” by your aunt who shares Minion memes. Director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana and Gold, and he wrote Traffic… a good track record until now – though he was apparently fired before the reshoots) attempts to pull from the good whimsey of early Tim Burton or Time Bandits/Baron Munchasen Terry Gilliam, but without any charm or humor. This is a deeply unfunny comedy, featuring shallow reference humor and fart jokes.
Robert Downey Jr heads up the menagerie of CG animals voiced by celebrities, a few live-action cartoon performances by well-known British actors, and two bland kid actors. The most notable aspect of Downey’s performance is the inexplicable accent. He’s supposed to be Welsh and I read he tried hard to get it right. He might have for all I know, but right or not it comes off awful, distracting, and akin to a bad Jack Sparrow impersonation. Fitting as the film often comes off like a Pirates of the Caribbean impersonation; wanting to be filled with high-adventure, quirky jokes and characters, and interesting set pieces but sadly left all that in the “not done yet” pile.
The film opens with a nicely-done animated sequence with Emma Thompson voiceover detailing the background for Dr. John Dolittle, the man who can speak to animals. (The animals all speak the same language. I suppose that’s easiest for the storytelling) He meets an explorer named Lily, falls in love, and they have all sorts of adventures. She dies, and he shuts up his hospital (no one goes in, and no one goes out. Shadows of small people dance in the factory windows… oh wait, wrong movie). These adventures look like so much fun. Like the X-Men Origins credits scene, the opening of the film offers up better story ideas than the one presented. That’d be a more engaging adventure with fun-loving characters instead of Debbie Downer Dolittle.
What does happen is Dolittle is requested to save Queen Victoria from schemers for the throne. He’s summoned by Lady Rose (bland girl), the friend/sister/something/who-cares of the 20-something Queen Victoria as those schemers are those closest to her otherwise- Michael Sheen’s Dr Mudfly and Jim Broadbent’s Lord of something or other. They scheme well within earshot of everyone, so it’s a wonder they were able to poison her so easily. In a very rushed sequence, he determines what she’s been poisoned by and determines he needs to take a voyage to a mythical island to get the antidote.
So, Dolittle, Stubbins (bland boy) and the gang of animals head off into the CG High Seas to seek the island and we have the bulk of the movie: consisting of two islands – one run by Antonio Banderas and one with the farting dragon in a lackluster climax. A climax so small it’s a big “what?” when the goal is completed, everyone’s home and the movie ends. It’s jarring how it moves through these scenes.A storm starts to build, but then cuts to the next scene. We’re told via voice over of Dolittle and Stubbins breaking into the castle run by Bandaras. We see one moment of it before Dolittle is captured and the kid is suddenly “one of us” for Bandaras.
Michael Sheen is sent to follow Dolittle and sink his ship, serving as the active villain. He’s easily the best part of the film, overacting with glee (not as much as in the Twilight flicks, though). What’s most odd is I’m pretty sure he’s added in reshoots. I could be wrong, but something about the shots and his actions feel separate from everything else.
The weirdest thing here is the backstory of the island isn’t given but everyone talks like it is. This happens a great deal during the movie, characters, histories, and plot points are spoken about or get a conclusion without having an introduction. (such as a blanket for the gorilla. It’s mentioned by Stubbins and then we see the gorilla give it to the tiger like it’s a big moment but no set up as it’s never seen or used before). I know last week I gave Underwater good marks for excising exposition, but Dolittle’s exposition cuts feel like I fell asleep like the people behind me.
Having Thomspon do a voice-over doesn’t fix it, instead feels like a band-aid. And honestly, I’m damned sure not all off it is Thompson, but a sound alike. I noticed this a few times through the film. Some of the voices sound off, as if the Famous Actor wouldn’t return for whatever basic joke they were forced to say. I’ve not really mentioned many of the actors performing as the animals. That’s on purpose. I have a hatred for shoving a bunch of recognizable names into animated roles to sell the film. None put in any real effort, there for an easy gig to do over the phone in their PJs. Hey, pools won’t pay to resurface themselves. Why get a talented voice actor to give an actual something to your character and inflate your budget when instead the audience can spent whole film trying to figure out who the voice is? (John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch did a great break down of these type of thing. Check it out)
On the plus side, the CG on the animals is mostly pretty darn good, even if the compositing doesn’t always work. But, you’d think with a fully computer created creature catalog, there would be the chance to put in more fantastical creatures, no giant snails or Push-Me-Pull-Yous here. There is the very basic dragon, but that’s it and far less impressive than previous filmed dragons.
Yes, the above review is a little scattershot and messy. But so is the movie I’m trying to talk about. But I don’t have the ability to delay it twice or 180 million dollars to dump into it. Dolittle is an incomplete movie, so why should I finish the review?
Dolittle is unfinished, unfunny, and a waste of the considerable talent in front of and behind the camera. It’s an awful movie, but not entertainingly awful like this time last year’s Serenity or maybe still in theaters Cats. It’s just a bore of bad decisions and blandness. Where did that 180 million bucks go?
PS Tried to work in this part that bothered me above but couldn’t work it in. A sign on how little care was given to make it flow… Stubbins sneaks into Dolittle’s shut up estate through a hole in the wall. Moments later, Lady Rose just appears with four horses and a carriage. How did not one see that giant error?