Dolittle review – Robert Downey Jr’s middling talking-animals pantomime | Film

Every imaginable indicator suggested that Dolittle, the umpteenth attempt to bring Hugh Lofting’s animal-obsessed doctor to the screen, would be a howling disaster. Putting aside the sheer redundancy of yet another retelling, it’s a film shot two years ago that test audiences hated, leading to reshoots the year after (with the help of a second director). That resulted in two release dates being missed, leaving us with an ominous January bow here in the US, a month typically associated with movies that closely resemble pungent dumpster fires.

I don’t particularly care for the end product but it’s not as hideous as that potted history might suggest, an average film rather than an atrocious one, a minuscule yet meaningful victory for Universal, still licking its wounds after Cats. The animals on show here are far less nightmarish although the film is far less memorable and maybe some sick part of me wanted it to be worse – or weirder – just to make it stick out from the pack. Because by the end of the month, I’ll have trouble remembering that I’ve even seen it, the specifics of the plot fading fast as I type …

After the last live-action take transported events to present-day America, with Eddie Murphy in the lead, this version goes back to the source and places us in Victorian England, with John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) mourning the death of his wife, closing himself off in an extravagant estate with only animals as company. His unusual skill for talking to them reduces his isolation, but his distrust and total avoidance of other humans limits his social life. When two children find their way on to his property, he’s forced to re-examine his ways.

The plot that follows is as convoluted as it is silly and involves some guff about Queen Victoria (a staggeringly thankless role for Jessie Buckley), a sinister rival doctor (Michael Sheen in pantomime mode) and a quest to a mysterious island with time allowed for a campy cameo from a recent Oscar nominee (an unembarrassed Antonio Banderas) and a previous Oscar winner (Jim Broadbent on autopilot).

It’s all very absurd but it’s paced for the attention span of a small child and so mostly resembles a live-action cartoon, lurching from one chaotic set piece to the next, boredom not given the time to start truly setting in. What’s most absurd though is just how much it cost to make, an astonishingly irresponsible $175m without marketing costs. At times it’s visible in the film’s often handsome production design but at others, the effects are shaky and imprecise, an unforgivable oversight given the money spent.

One of the alleged reasons behind the reshoots was a need for more comedy and while the film is filled with attempted comic moments, they’re almost entirely lacklustre, snappy one-liners failing to snap and an overreliance on tiresome contemporary phrases (an one point Queen Victoria’s octopus warns that “snitches get stitches”). The script was allegedly spruced up by The Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay but it’s in need of a more exhaustive retooling, perhaps by a sitcom writer – anyone who could give these animals something funnier to say.

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Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures/Jay Maidment

Because behind, or inside, the animals is a host of big names, from Tom Holland to Emma Thompson to Ralph Fiennes to Rami Malek to Octavia Spencer, but their involvement is largely window dressing with no big-name standout to speak of. Arguably the best vocal performance is from a smaller name: Jason Mantzoukas as a romantic yet unreliable dragonfly, a vibrant comic actor more obviously suited to voice work. Downey, whose charm has mutated over the years into a suffocating smugness, is surprisingly bearable here, avoiding the sort of overly mannered, tic-filled turn that’s made him and Johnny Depp increasingly interchangeable (although his accent is unshakably jarring, sounding like a man born in Wales who then spent alternate weeks of his life in Sheffield).

There are moments when Dolittle threatens to become something more willfully perverse or at least distinguishable – Marion Cotillard’s revolutionary fox suggesting she should kill a child with the help of Selena Gomez’s friendly giraffe, a stick insect spying on Jim Broadbent, Downey giving Frances de la Tour’s short-tempered dragon a colonoscopy – but they’re regrettably fleeting and we’re soon back on the forgettably straight and narrow. It’s ultimately a miracle that despite the tortured production process, Dolittle can most generously be described as passable for young, undiscerning viewers. It won’t charm or amuse you particularly but it’s not a catastrophe, the highest praise I can muster.

Source: The Guardian

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