Review: Dolittle

The cost of the new period-set children’s adventure flick, DOLITTLE, is outrageous, nearing almost $200 million, or almost as much as it takes to assemble Earth’s Mightiest Heroes or an army of Star Destroyers. When watching the movie it’s hard to tell what about the movie that warranted the cost to own a small country, but where it all seemed to go was to ensure that a CGI gorilla (voiced by Rami Malek) could kick a CGI tiger (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) in the testicles, and so that Robert Downey Jr. could stick a leek up a dragon’s ass – all in the name of whimsical adventure for the whole family, I suppose.

Now that sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you, those are two real moments that happen in this bizarre children’s movie starring Downey as the famous doctor from the Hugh Lofting stories who talks to animals. Not only does he speak with animals, but in a fashion that will never not look absurd on camera, he talks to them in their own distinct languages (barking, various growls, the occasional tweet-tweet), and that’s how we first meet our title character. Followed by a lovely animation retelling his medical achievements and an eventual tragedy, we find him years later sporting a hermit beard that makes Gandalf look clean-shaven, and shouting out assorted animals noises. All this, of course, leading to the first of several sight gags focused entirely on a CGI animal’s hairy ass.

Contrary to how much that all sounds like raunchy performance art, this is indeed a children’s film, and we’re soon enveloped into how Dolittle converses with the animals, as they speak perfect English and are all voiced by various A-list actors. You have Jip the dog (Tom Holland), Chee-Chee the gorilla with an immense fear of everything (Rami Malek), Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena), Dab-Dab the duck (Octavia Spencer) and a lot more. While there’s plenty of lunacy left to come, from here on out it becomes very clear that DOLITTLE amounts to not much more than perhaps the most expensive ensemble children’s comedy ever made, with less attention paid to all the potential magic and wonder of the setting and more on, well, a lot revolving around animated animal anatomy.

That’s certainly where director Stephen Gaghan’s sensibilities lie (it’s worth noting that reports surfaced that director Jonathan Liebesman came on to help oversee filming alongside him, and Chris McKay had to help punch up the comedy elements). With Dolittle and his band of animals sent on a quest to find a medicine to cure the Queen of England (Jessie Buckley, who spends most of the movie sleeping), almost all the energy is taken off the actual spirit of adventure and showing young audiences a whole new world through the lens of a time period gone by, and more on getting the animals to dish out puns and show them doing all sorts of quirky things…like playing poker. As absurd as that can be to imagine, it’s not the movie’s weakest attribute. In fact, the voice cast is very game and buys into the spirit of it all, and between the jokes in the script from Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand (and what McKay added) there’s an abundance of quirk and general strangeness that ranges from genuinely funny to so odd it can’t help but be funny. I could recall a few visual gags, but when it comes to some of them this is the only instance where I’ll say something in DOLITTLE needs to be seen to be believed.

But the strength of the voice cast, the weirdness of the humor, and the bewildering sight of it all is hardly enough to make watching the thing bearable. Gaghan, more known for his work on movies like SYRIANA and GOLD was a bewildering choice to helm his visual effects extravaganza. He has no sense of visual imagination, with the movie’s most adventurous moments lacking in any splendor or majesty, and even enough to bring everything to a screeching halt. One scene between two warring ships makes CATS look like AVENGERS, as Dolittle hooks his ship up to a nearby whale for extra speed. It’s crammed with mind-numbing effects that looks embarrassingly cheap, with only the youngest of children not expected to be phased by it. Even the earliest visual effects scenes are clunky and boggle the mind as to where the cost went. So much went into making the animals interact with their environment and exist alongside Downey, but considering how bunched up they often are and how much chaos they bring to any environment, it’s hard to focus on the intricate details that would make them stand out. It’s just a cavalcade of digital animals messing about a house or a boat or a cramped room as Downey tries to gain his bearings and perhaps, like us, wondering what maddening rabbit hole he’s swirling in.

Then we come to Downey in the title role. Doing a cross between his iteration of Sherlock Holmes and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow with a sort of English (sounds a little Irish) grizzle, underneath the surliness is a pathos and warmth Downey can bring to any role. Sadly, he’s so busy being campy and strange he almost never gets a chance to let his warmth shine. Not to mention he’s having to share the screen with half-a-dozen animals at a time, and I recall at least a few moments where ADR was clunkily used so he could speak over a shot focused on a digital companion. In a better movie, this could’ve been another great role for him, but even an actor of his standing can’t overcome a literal stampede of poor visuals.

While overblown in most senses, it’s all to turn this into the most expensive quirky, children’s adventure ever. If you understand early on that this movie is not meant to be consumed by lone adults, the movie is genuinely funny in spots, sometimes because it’s so strange, the puns so ridiculous, or because it’s just genuinely witty (Craig Robinson as a revenge-fueled squirrel and Kumail Nanjiani as a selfish ostrich come to mind). Michael Sheen plays the baddie Dr. Blair Müdfly, and he seems to get what kind of movie he’s in, going for silly over legit villainous. Then there’s Antonio Banderas as a roguish pirate king who needed more screentime, and Jim Broadbent as an English lord and looks uncomfortable being there at all. What we can take from some of these supporting roles is that some actors realized they were doing a madcap (emphasis on mad) adventure aimed squarely as grade-schoolers, and others what they got themselves into. By the end, you will certainly be in one camp or another. 

My screening was also attended by families with small kids, and it should be noted they all had a blast. So many “I loved it!” comments from kids, which though unreliable given the amount of sugar they’re on, the parents seemed to genuinely agree. For families, it offers some strange fun that’s simply fun in the exact headspace. But as an adult reviewing the movie on more merits than that, I can honestly say a waft of failure and missed opportunity will forever follow DOLITTLE, and the unbelievable cost is to blame. It seems an arbitrary thing to blame a movie on its budget, but that’s where most of this movie’s problems lie. So much money was spent as so little came of it beyond numerous sight gags featuring animal butts. There was a ton of potential for a gorgeous period-set adventure movie filed with wonder and heart, but what’s here instead is an overblown outing with the emotional density and scope of a pop-up book for ages seven and up. For the young audience this is almost strictly for, and the parents who love sharing a laugh with them, DOLITTLE will be more than enough on many fronts. Everyone else would spend their time better by staying home and learning to talk with their cats.

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