Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Glutton for Punishment: DOLITTLE

by JB
“Respected” movie critics and the Twitter machine would have you believe that this movie is a mess…

… and they would be right! Yet the real tragedy of Dolittle is that, sitting through it, one can so easily see both the glorious children’s adventure it aspired to be and the lumpy sodden mess that it became.

A pity, really.
My first question when I saw the trailer last fall was “who in hell was taking a chance on this property again?” Hadn’t the beloved Hugh Lofting Doctor Dolittle stories from the 1920s proved to be impervious to movie adaptation? The 1967 Rex Harrison version is famous for almost bankrupting 20th Century Fox and not returning even a third of its eighteen million-dollar million budget. The 1998 Eddie Murphy version is all but forgotten—a stupid, puerile film that was one of the many missteps in Murphy’s decline, though it was a box-office success. Did someone at Universal Pictures think perhaps that the third time’s the charm? Will the “Talking Animals One-Two Punch” of Cats and Dolittle threaten Universal Picture’s financial stability?

The Plot in Brief: Veterinarian Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey), has the ability to talk to animals, but he has become a recluse after the death of his wife, Lily. Through the efforts of the parrot Polynesia (Emma Thompson), young Tom Stubbins (Harry Collett), and Lady Rose (Carmel Ladiado), Dolittle heals an injured squirrel, foils a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), and returns to the world of the living (animals as well as people.)
The film looks great but the erratic editing makes it difficult to enjoy or appreciate the cool costumes, elaborate props, and beautiful locations. Much has been made of Robert Downey’s risible Welsh accent in the title role, but it was actually one of the aspects of this movie that I enjoyed. After ten years of playing Tony Stark, maybe it has simply become a habit for Downey—but I enjoy it when he plays a character who obviously has such a rich interior life that he seems distracted to the point of annoyance with the plot, action, and other characters in the film. But as I watched Dolittle, I wondered if he was actually daydreaming about cashing his fat paycheck.

The problem with this film is immediately evident: the producers got cold feet for some reason and ordered reshoots and redubs. The erratic editing style speaks to a film that wouldn’t cut together, and the amount of shots where people and animals speak, but we only see them from behind, suggests a lot of re-looping. Much of the CGI animal dialogue is strangely contemporary and anachronistic and doesn’t match the tone of what we are seeing on screen. Could the producers have hired second-rate comedians to goose the dialogue? Whatever the source, the dismal “results” include sequences like John Cena’s Polar Bear and Kumail Nunjani’s Ostrich referring to each other as “Bro.” That’s the joke—just “Bro.” Really? In a film that takes place in the 19th century?

Various smaller animals constantly provide annoying commentary on the action, with lines like “Well, that’s gotta hurt.” An animal cellmate of Dolittle’s in the film’s prison sequence asks if Dolittle is so scared that he “doo-doo’d a little in his pants.” Get it? Doo… doo… LITTLE? In the same sequence, a menacing tiger voiced by Ralph Fiennes is dispatched by a hard kick to his groin. Ouch! Tiger’s got nards! In the early 21st century, this is how we reward our Academy Award nominees.
MASSIVE SPOILERS: In the film’s most tasteless and inexplicable scene, the mighty dragon who guards the Eden Fruit Tree (don’t ask) is crabby and mean because of an intestinal blockage. (I am not making this up.) Dolittle performs a kind of magical high colonic and clears the dragon’s lower sigmoid of human bones, pieces of military armor, a set of bagpipes, and what must be hundreds of cubic liters of flatulence. That’s right: a major plot point in this film intended for impressionable children is resolved when a fire-breathing dragon is encouraged to fart… as bagpipes are forcibly removed from her ass.


FULL DISCLOSURE: I attended the first matinee screening on opening day. The only other patrons in the cavernous Dolby Cinema theater were a young mother and her two sons. They left halfway through.

The only entertainment onscreen are the performances, short and truncated though they seem, of some of the supporting cast. Jim Broadbent comes up with a fun, stuffy voice for his character. Michael Sheen is gleeful as the villain, and even comes equipped with a moustache to twirl. Antonio Banderas (Yes!) shows up halfway through the film as a pirate king (Cool!), and is immediately given barely any screen time. (Boo!) Do the producers hate these actors? Did they think they had to pay them by the word? Why pay to hire these three brilliant character actors and then NOT give them anything interesting to say or do? I swear, there is a little, annoying flying bug character in this movie who has more screen time than Broadbent and Banderas combined.
Seeing the ridiculous lengths the producers went to “improve” this property reminded me of one of my favorite Roger Ebert quotes. He was referring to modern education in his original review of Mr. Holland’s Opus, but he might have been talking about this film. Ebert wrote, “Modifying the curriculum to make it more ‘contemporary’ and ‘relevant’ is doing an injustice to students, whose lives will become relevant to the exact degree that high school encourages them to outgrow themselves, and escape from the contemporary into the timeless.”

I think there is a vast audience of young people who have the taste and patience for a slower, more thoughtful, flatulence-free Dolittle. Pity the poor producers who want with all their hearts to make an excellent children’s adventure film, but give actual children so little credit. This new film makes the unwieldy mess that is the Rex Harrison version… look like a masterpiece. At least that version has catchy songs.


  1. Saw this opening night (Thursday) and there were only two people for an evening showing. It was obvious to me that the studio heads probably freaked at the plot involving Dr. Dolittle's wife (no spoilers), and the reshoots were designed to lessen that aspect of the story.

    Between this, "Current War" and "Spies in Disguise" Tom Holland is becoming movie Kryptonite whenever he isn't wearing a Spidey suit. Not only is Jip an unfunny and underused character (this character feels like it had a bigger role in the version of "Dolittle" before the reshoots) but you can feel Holland's embarrassment at playing a "talking" dog. BTW, are ALL movies that want to convey cinematically that audiences are hearing in English what characters are saying in a different language going to rip off John McTiernan? "Nomads," "The Hunt for Red October" and "The 13th Warrior" established this technique, and now writer/director Stephen Gaghan ("Syriana"??!!) just outright steals the idea... again! Team Downey deserves better than a cobbled-together mish-mash of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (Dolittle = Capt. Sparrow) and Jackie Chan's "Around the World in 80 Days." :-(

    1. JM, that's an awesome connection you made across McT's movies. He subverts that in Predator, when he has Arnie tell Anna, "No more games." Who knew it was that simple?

    2. "Dolittle" is just the latest in a long line of movies that shamelessly steal ("pay homage" they would say) McTiernan's technique. For shame, Hollywood! :-(