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Friday, January 17, 2020

Dolittle

The month of January can be a confusing time at the movies.  On one end, it's a time when movies like 1917 and JoJo Rabbit are either given wide releases, or a second chance at the box office due to Award recognition.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have movies like Dolittle, a bloated and confused blockbuster that never realizes its full potential, and instead simply sinks into the quagmire of an out of control budget, and an uncertain notion on just where the film was supposed to go in the first place.

The title refers to Dr. John Dolittle, the famed literary creation of Hugh Lofting, who can talk to the animals as easily as he can other people.  The history of bringing the character and his stories to the big screen has been shaky at best.  Most famously, there was the 1967 musical film with Rex Harrison, which was an overproduced flop, but the studio still managed to pay for some Oscar nominations for it.  There was also a modern day take with Eddie Murphy in 1998, which spawned a sequel in 2001, and then pretty much went straight to video after that, where all ill-realized franchises go to die.  Now there is this effort from co-writer and director Stephen Gaghan, who is best known for writing heavy adult-oriented fare like Traffic and Syriana.  I don't know what convinced Gaghan that he could handle a big budget, special effects heavy children's film like this, but if the final product is any indication, he was in over his head with this one.

But there may be a lot of people to blame for this film's failure.  This was apparently a very troubled production that was originally slated to be released last summer, until disastrous early test screenings convinced the studio to force the film to undergo massive reshoots and rewrites of the script.  Not only that, but director Jonathan Liebesman (2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) was also called in to take over, although he is uncredited.  All the studio interference and behind the scenes efforts to save the film have led up to a movie that is surprisingly hard to follow, and at times makes little sense.  At the middle of it all is a sheepish looking Robert Downey Jr as Dolittle, with unkempt hair and a voice that largely sounds dubbed over, as if his words don't always match up to his lips.  Combine this with an accent that is next to impossible to pin down, and it comes across as a possible career low point for Downey. 

The film opens with a warmly animated prologue that tells us the Doctor's backstory.  We learn that Dolittle was once in love with an adventurer named Lily (Kasia Smutniak), and they traveled the world together helping animals in need.  But after Lily died in a storm at sea, Dolittle shut down emotionally, and now hides himself away in his sprawling home with only his dozens of animals for company.  The film switches to live action at this point, and something looks immediately off, as most of the CG animals that Dolittle interacts with don't quite seem to be sharing the same space as Downey.  There are lots of moments where he is supposed to be looking directly at a parrot or a polar bear, but their eyes just don't quite line up.  Actors like Emma Thompson, John Cena, Ralph Fiennes, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani and Tom Holland provide voices for the animals that appear in the film, with only Thompson doing anything substantial, as her parrot character gets to narrate the film.  However, her narration seems to have been added in late in the film to help clear up some of the plot.  Too bad they didn't give her a running commentary throughout the entire running time.  It might have helped even more.

Dolittle is brought out of isolation when two young visitors show up at his home seeking his help at the same time, which comes across as sloppy and contrived.  One is Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who has come to report that Queen Victoria is very ill, and that she wants Dolittle to go on a journey to find the one thing that can save her, a mystical fruit from the Eden Tree.  What is this magical healing fruit, and what exactly is the Eden Tree?  I honestly couldn't tell you.  All the movie tells us is that John's beloved Lily was searching for it when she died, and now Dolittle has to find it.  At the same time, a young boy named Stubbins (Harry Collett) comes with an injured squirrel that he accidentally shot that he wants Dolittle to help.  Stubbins quickly becomes John's new apprentice, and learns that he can talk to the animals as well.  How, exactly?  Again, I honestly couldn't tell you.  We get a few scenes where Dolittle appears to be teaching the boy, but these don't add up to much of anything.

So, our heroes set out to find the Eden Tree, all the while being pursued by the evil villains led by Jim Broadbent and Michael Sheen, who want the Queen to die from her illness so that they can apparently take over and rule.  I say "apparently" as once again, the movie is not exactly clear on the details.  The journey will take them to a distant kingdom ruled over by an angry King whom John has a past with (Antonio Banderas), as well as a lost cave guarded by a dragon who has an intestinal gas problem from all the soldiers she's eaten over the years.  All of this plot and information is simply tossed to the winds in a script that never slows down long enough to explain what most of this means, or even how it connects.  And why do some of the animals look sort of realistic, and some of them look like they stepped out of a CG cartoon?  And speaking of the animals, why do they all talk in modern day slang when the movie appears to be set in early 20th Century England? 

Dolittle provides no answers, and seems to have been made on the fly, with no real sense of purpose.  It almost comes across as a series of random scenes and ideas that have been pasted together.  You can see bits of the movie that Gaghan perhaps was trying to make here and there, but they are overshadowed by the chaotic over-editing and nonsensical plotting.  There's simply no excuse for how loose and amateurish this film feels when you consider the talent that it attracted, as well as the reported $175 million budget.  There are moments here that simply felt like cash was being thrown at the movie in the hopes that maybe something good would come out of it.  As I'm sure you know, all the money in the world can't help a movie if there's no vision behind it.

That's what it all boils down to here - a lack of vision, and gobs of money tossed at a doomed project that nobody had any faith in.  Maybe Dolittle never stood much of a chance, but it seems like once various people started to step in in order to save it, the film lost all sense of identity, and became a jumbled multi-million dollar mess.

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