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‘Dolittle’ does even less

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When a once-hyped big-budget movie sees its release time moved from prime real estate to the January tundra, it’s probably safe to assume that things haven’t worked out the way anyone anticipated. It’s not hard to tell when a studio has made the grim decision to cut its losses.

“Dolittle” was obviously intended to be a tentpole, a spring/summer release meant to kick off a franchise. And with no-longer-Tony-Stark Robert Downey Jr. on board, it probably felt like an easy win, a no-brainer.

Instead, it’s a meandering and pointless exercise in formulaic filmmaking. It is utterly lacking in any sort of spark, a flat and listless story told without any real excitement or urgency. There’s zero in the way of originality and even less in the way of engagement despite an absolutely all-star cast. Younger viewers might get some giggles, but even they will likely sense that something doesn’t sit right.

Basically, “Dolittle” is a dumb movie that doesn’t really care how dumb it is.

RDJ stars as the titular Dolittle, the legendary doctor who can talk to animals. A personal tragedy – the loss of his explorer wife to an accident at sea – has led to him isolating himself on the estate that he was granted due to his service to the Queen.

His only companions are the animals that he has saved – animals with whom he can converse, of course. There’s the thoughtful macaw Polynesia (Emma Thompson, “Last Christmas”). There’s the anxiety-ridden gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, TV’s “Mr. Robot”) and the always-cold polar bear Yoshi (John Cena, “Burning Down the House”). Jip (Tom Holland, “Spies in Disguise”) is a dog who serves as Dolittle’s medical assistant. Others include the prosthetic-legged duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer, “Ma”) and the fussy ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani, “Stuber”).

But Dolittle’s isolation is about to be broken – twice.

There’s the intrusion of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, TV’s “Casualty”), a boy desperate to help a squirrel that he inadvertently injured during a hunting trip with his family. And then there’s Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado, TV’s “A Christmas Carol”), who has arrived to call Dolittle to the palace, where he might be able to help the ailing Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley, “Judy”).

Despite his best efforts, Dolittle submits to taking the journey to the palace; Stubbins, despite being told to be on his way, stows away in an effort to get Dolittle to take him on as an apprentice. Upon their arrival, Dolittle learns that the Queen’s treatment is being overseen by his old rival, a hack named Mudfly (Michael Sheen, TV’s “Good Omens”).

Conveniently enough, it turns out that the only way to cure the Queen’s ailment is to use the fruit of the Eden Tree, a legendary plant that Dolittle’s lost wife had been seeking. But while Dolittle, Stubbins and the animals undertake the quest to find it, Mudfly and Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent, “King of Thieves”) have plans of their own – plans that they can’t let Dolittle upset.

What follows is a predictable and slightly dull journey, one that leads to the crew crossing paths with - among others – King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory”), ruler of an island of miscreants and rogues … and the father to Dolittle’s deceased wife, because why not?

Aaaannnnd cue the computer-generated hijinks.

“Dolittle” has a LOT of problems. It’s not funny enough to be this lacking in cuteness and not cute enough to be this unfunny. Essentially, you’ve got a disinterested RDJ speaking in an inexplicable accent (and a poorly overdubbed one, at that) and a bunch of CGI animals saying things that aren’t really jokes but are nevertheless intended to be funny. At no point does this film ever feel like it is going anywhere, which is pretty damning when the entire second half of your narrative is, you know, a literal journey.

No one expects “Citizen Kane” when they go to see a movie like this, but neither do they expect that the narrative climax will peak with (SPOILER ALERT) a fart joke involving bagpipes and a dragon. And hey, you know me – I love a good fart joke. This, alas, is not a good one.

One thing this film does is illustrate the general pointlessness of a vocal cast packed with famous names. Now, that’s not to say these folks do a bad job – they deal with the unfortunate dreck they’ve been given with professionalism. But casting stars in these parts inevitably proves distracting; I haven’t even mentioned the appearances of folks like Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson and Jason Mantzoukas. A few stand out – Thompson, Mantzoukas, Cena – and everyone else is good enough, but their fame seems more hindrance than help.

As for Downey – hoo boy. You’d expect a big swing for his first post-MCU role, and I suppose this IS a big swing in its way, but … yikes. From the low-energy sauntering through his scenes to the aforementioned accent – is it Irish? Welsh? Scottish? Some combination therein? – it just seems like a woefully misguided choice. Though I suppose one could argue that everything about this movie is woefully misguided, so there’s that.

The other live-action actors are fine. The kids are decent. Banderas camps it up in a couple of scenes, while Sheen seems like he might be the only person on the set who’s actually trying (and that includes director Stephen Gaghan). Everyone else is adequate, doing their best with bad material.

“Dolittle” is a big-budget misfire, a CGI-riddled wreck that doesn’t look nearly good enough visually to make up for its hollowness. It is listless and unfunny, lacking even a modicum of the spirit that makes for a good kids’ movie. It condescends to its audience, unconcerned with how generally stupid it all is. It is very, very bad.

But hey – it’s still better than “Cats.”

[1 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 January 2020 09:19

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