As a critic, I don’t like hating movies. No matter how unpleasant my experience with the film, I try to find the positive. After all, hundreds to thousands of people put their hard work into what’s up on screen, so I try to avoid to trashing their work. But with something as brazenly terrible as Dolittle, I don’t even know what to say.
Dolittle broke me. The latest adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s book character, an eccentric doctor with the ability to talk to animals, is ostensibly directed by Stephen Gaghan. Various reports, however, would suggest he had less to do with the film than is being advertised. Whoever is responsible for the finished film, Dolittle fails at every fundamental area of moviemaking.
A film’s foundation, the story, is present here… on paper. Animal doctor John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) lives as a recluse in his English manor following the death of his wife. Yes, Dolittle wears the “dead wife” trope on its sleeve like a badge of shame. When a mysterious sickness overtakes Queen Victoria, Dolittle is forced to go on a voyage; accompanied by his band of animals and a young apprentice (Harry Collett). Horribly generic, though not a bad start, right? Well, Gaghan and co. have no idea what the actual adventure is going to be. Because of this, the film merely stumbles from plot point to uninspired plot point. This situation is made worse by a head-scratching editing job from Craig Alpert and Nick Moore.
For a film with two editors, the narrative here is truncated to bits. We’ll spend an ungodly time screwing around at Dolittle’s mansion or on his ship only to suddenly be in a new location. Narration from Emma Thompson’s macaw character fills us in on the context we’re missing. It’s as if we just skipped through an entire 20 minutes of movie. This might very well be the case, given this movie’s reported reshoots. Dolittle seems alternatively in a hurry to end and wanting to waste as much of the audience’s time as possible, leaving them completely unable to adjust to its rhythm. Maybe if the actual content was of decent quality, this editing would be a mere nuisance, but it’s even worse!
After being the star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tens of millions of dollars later, Robert Downey Jr. could’ve done anything he wanted. Instead, he chose to give easily the most embarrassing performance of his entire career. Downey Jr. seems to be aping late-era Johnny Depp, as nothing but a collection of empty quirky and shtick. Beneath a warbled Scottish (?) accent, RDJ’s Dolittle comes across as drunk, confused, and at times even cruel. Said accent also appears to have been dubbed over in post-production.
Moreover, Dolittle has no chemistry with any of the other equally disastrous performances. His relationship with his young apprentice is tense and uncomfortable. Downey Jr. doesn’t even appear to know he’s in the same movie as his animated counterparts. Speaking of, how Dolittle managed to attract so many stars is beyond me. It’s almost hilarious to see such big names as Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani slumming it here, if only because one knows they were getting an easy paycheck out of it.
Speaking of the animal characters of the film, the CGI to bring them to life is not even worth mentioning. Neither good nor bad, it’s the epitome of mediocrity. The same goes for the cinematography by Guillermo Navarro and Danny Elfman’s score. They do the bare minimum. Nothing else. An element of the movie that comes close to working is Antonio Banderas as the king of the pirates, Rassouli.
Like Downey Jr., Banderas seems to be in a different movie from everyone else; though in a good way this time. He brings fierce grit, a certain menace, that you would expect in one of the original Pirates of the Carribbean flicks rather than a Dolittle movie. I desperately want to mark this down as a positive. But all this performance does is highlight the flick’s other issues.
Many will defend Dolittle, saying it’s “just a kid’s movie”. I harshly disagree, because children deserve more than the crass onslaught of braindead “jokes” that populate every spare moment. Fart jokes, petty animal bickering, hits on the head, hits in the crotch, hits everywhere! Not an ounce of it worked, and the audience of children who I saw the movie with were dead silent.
A lot of people compare Dolittle to December’s critical and commercial bomb, also from Universal Pictures, Cats. I don’t find that fair at all. For whatever its issues, Cats has a vision, a commitment that few films do and I love it for it. Dolittle has no such luxury.
Dolittle is a failure of beastly proportions. Any given moment in this movie is a chore to experience, and it’s not even worth a look out of morbid curiosity. If you’re that curious, then read the highly entertaining accounts of the film’s production. Other than that, this is one we need to leave in the past as a lesson of Hollywood excess gone amok. John Dolittle may be able to speak to animals, but his latest film speaks to nobody. –James Preston Poole
Dolittle is in theaters now.