This is a spoiler-free review of Dolittle…
Last year saw the release of Cats — a complete and utter trainwreck and a meme spawning machine. Here’s the funny thing about that sh*t show: It’s made by a man with a vision. There is passion dripping out of every frame. It has the swagger and bravado of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Everybody on set, behind and in front of the camera, were convinced they were making a 21st-century musical masterpiece. It’s one of those epic cinematic ballcancers, like The Room and Batman & Robin, that force movie critics to stretch their literary wings and write something funny worthy of its legendary status.
Dolittle is not that movie.
It feels like it’s made by a large committee of people in suits and ties slicing and dicing away as they please. It feels like that because that’s literally what happened. The film was originally co-written and directed by Stephen Gaghan who won a Screenplay Oscar for Traffic and was nominated for his writing in Syriana. But apparently, test audiences didn’t like his version of Dolittle, so one of the writers of The Lego Batman movie was brought in for significant re-writes and the director of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was hired to handle reshoots. I’m curious to know what Gaghan’s original vision for this thing was. It could’ve been bad, but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have been as lifeless and rhythmless as what I actually saw on the big screen yesterday. Dolittle is 160 minutes of an ECG machine connected to a dead person — a flatline.
The film opens in stylistically animated form introducing Dr. John Dolittle, the veterinary who has the unique gift of being able to converse with animals. He travelled the world helping animals and on one of his adventures, met the love of his life, Lily. One day, as Lily was sailing across the ocean, her ship was engulfed by large waves, ending her life. As the movie chugged along, I couldn’t help by wonder why that animated prologue, that tragic romance wasn’t the actual movie. It’s infinitely more engrossing than what we actually had to sit through.
After losing Lily, Dr. Dolittle is now a recluse. One day he’s summoned by the Queen of England, who’s on her deathbed. She’s been poisoned. So Dolittle has to traverse across the narrow sea to find a magical antidote that can cure her. The premise is fine, but the film doesn’t feel like the adventure of a lifetime. There are no clues, no interesting and thrilling obstacles to overcome, no memorable set pieces nor an epic musical score. It’s as bland as watching wet paint dry.
It’s just baffling the sheer amount of talent involved in this project but nobody is able to come up with anything remotely stimulating. (I know I shouldn’t be baffled by this since my opening paragraph was about effing Cats but just roll with my punches, ok?) How is it that you enlist Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice, Batman 1989) as the composer and aren’t able to extract even a fraction of a beat that’s noteworthy?
I don’t believe Robert Downey Jr when he said this is his passion project. Fantasy films are filled with wacky characters. Lord Voldermort, Luna Lovegood and the wackiest of all, Captain Jack Sparrow come to mind. But these characters feel alive. They’re flesh and blood. They have hearts that thump according to the pulse of the films. They fit seamlessly with the tone of their respective worlds. Here RDJ in his first non-Marvel role since 2014, is so over-the-top and excessive, you wince every time he’s on-screen. Seeing as how he’s on-screen almost every second of the movie, by the end of it, your face will be permanently contorted from all the wincing. His accent is godawful and his body language always extra. You know how some dads try to mimic funny characters to try and make their newborns laugh but end up making them cry instead? Ya, that’s RDJ as Dr. Dolittle.
The rest of the characters suck as well. Sure, the CGI animals LOOK fine, but they lack even an iota of personality, unless you count little ticks like “anxiety” personality. They’re all voiced by supremely talented people (Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer) but not one of them say anything remotely funny. Of course, it’s not their fault. What can you do if you’re handed pieces of paper with scribbles on them where they should’ve been lines of humorous dialogue. Even the villainous characters played by Antonio Banderas and Michael Sheen look like they’re part of a skit on an SNL stage. Nobody comes alive, not even for a second.
The thing is, this movie isn’t BAD in the sense that there are convoluted and contrived plot points, poor character motivation and the likes. It’s not the kind of film that makes my head explode at the utter stupidity that I’m witnessing. It’s just as lifeless as my mom’s potted plants when she goes out of town and leaves watering duties to me. After a while, I just closed my notebook (yes, I take notes at the movies like a loser nerd) and resigned myself to this aggressively below average affair, trying very hard not to fall asleep.
A number of people asked me if I’m being too harsh on a family/kids movie. My response? When I was seven, wide-eyed and clueless, my dad brought me to see a little movie called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. That too is a movie aimed at families and kids. It changed my life forever. When I was 10, I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and was blown away by the swashbuckling adventure, the glorious set pieces and Hans Zimmer’s iconic score. But if your idea of a kids movie is watching Iron Man stick his hand up a dragon’s butt to pull out bagpipes and the dragon lets out a huge fart, then by all means. I’m just not going to be taking my kids to see Dolittle, mostly because I’m not married and don’t have kids, but also because I never want to see a dragon fart ever again.