Is there anything worse than a fantasy-adventure movie that has all the right pieces but absolutely no adventurous spirit? That is how I felt watching Dolittle, Robert Downey, Jr.’s first post-Iron-Man gig that feels so confused about itself, it plays like a set of short vignettes from other, better adventure stories that are being recreated by a group of juvenile actors who at no time are aware of what any other actor is doing, even within the same scene. It’s like the blind directing the blind — everyone can hear what’s being said, but the visual interpretation is all scattered across the universe.
A two-minute animated intro provides us a detailed backstory of how Dr. Iohn Dolittle (Downey Jr.) went on adventures with his one true love (Kasia Smutniak), only to eventually lose her to one of those adventures. In hindsight, I have to wonder if this setup would have made for a much better movie than the one we received.
Because of his devastating loss, Dolittle becomes a recluse, hiding away in a mansion given to him by the queen of England. He’s not entirely alone, as he lives with an array of exotic animals, including an ape who’s afraid of everything (Rami Malek), a polar bear who doesn’t like to be cold (John Cena), and a wise, articulate parrot (Emma Thompson). With a heavy, nondescript accent and agoraphobic tendencies that send him into sweats whenever the possibility of a human steps onto his property, Downey, Jr. plays Dolittle as if he’s interpreting the worst of Jack Sparrow. So-much-so, I had to keep reminding myself throughout the first act that this wasn’t Johnny Depp.
When Dolittle finds out that the queen is sick, and that the government will seize his property if she dies, he comes to the conclusion that he must help her back to health. Thus, it’s time for an adventure across the seas to find the cure! The turn from hypertensive recluse with a long, unbridled beard to a man ready to take on the world is so abrupt, there’s no time for you to acclimate to his sudden change. Yes, his physical appearance becomes more clean and proper throughout the adventure (embodied mostly by his shaggy hair slowly becoming less shaggy), but the whole thing feels forced and rushed.
Along for the ride is a tag-along boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who latches himself to Dolittle like a lost little orphan puppy, even though he isn’t lost or an orphan. Unlike his father (Ralph Ineson) and brother (Sonny Ashbourne Serkis), Tommy loves animals; he wants to help, not hurt them. So, when he accidentally shoots a squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson) during a family duck-hunting session, Dolittle’s parrot guides the boy to Dolittle’s manor, where he seeks help for the poor little woodland creature. From there, he weasels his way into Dolittle’s adventure as if he’s an important piece of rehabilitating Dolittle’s existence.
Except for one important thing: I didn’t see it. Much like there’s absolutely no chemistry between any of the scattered cast (no matter how high-end the cast may be), there is no spark of love or affection between Tommy and Dolittle, who considers the boy a stowaway through most of the film. So does the audience, who might consider Tommy a Cousin Oliver — which is to say, he’s nothing more than something the kids can relate to (if the talking animals wasn’t already enough for that). In other words, if you removed Tommy from the movie, you would have the exact same movie.
A similar effect plays into the majority of the characters, most of whom are introduced and then set aside like a forgotten toy. Carmel Laniado is introduced as a possible love interest for Collett, but the two are separated for the majority of the movie, meaning we’re never given a chance to see the two together for more than a minute at a time — so what’s the point of having her there? Michael Sheen shockingly pops in as an old medical rival of Dolittle who’s now trying to stop him from saving the queen. His character is so over-the-top, it’s hard to believe his character is even part of the same script. Finally, Antonio Banderes makes a cameo that is so effortlessly boring, uninspired and unnecessary, I’m not sure I remember anything that happened when he was on screen.
I commend director Stephan Gaghan for choosing to highlight Dolittle’s ability to speak to each animal in their native tongue, as well as his ability to pull in this many terrific actors (which also includes Jim Broadbent). And yet, because the visuals, both computer-generated and practical, are so bland and generic, it forces the movie to be just as bland and generic.
Adding a slew of recognizable (and some unrecognizable) voices in an attempt to liven up the animals doesn’t even work, mostly because the script itself is as banal and unappealing as the rest of the film. Absolutely no jokes land the way I’m sure the filmmakers hoped they would, and like the on-screen actors, you never once feel these animals are a part of the same movie. It almost feels as if the director just pulled dialogue from movies these actors were previously in, then threw them together into this film in hopes that it would comprehensible. By the time you reach the flatulent dragon, you’ve pretty much given up on the film ever redeeming itself.
Presented with a fantastical fantasy world of talking animals, swashbucklers, queens, dragons, and far-off worlds that hold the antidote to death, you might expect to be whisked away into a fun, magical kingdom of romance and revenge, heroism and adventure. Yet, with a dull and uninspired script and a cast of characters with little substance to warrant their presence, Dolittle offers none of that as it squeals, mumbles, meanders and vapidly goes through the motions in a film that does very little to engage kids and adults alike.
My Grade: D
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Next week, new movies include The Turning and The Gentleman. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.