[Review] ‘DOLITTLE’ an incoherent mess that does little to delight or entertain

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

DOLITTLE

Rated PG, 106 minutes.
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Michael Sheen, Antonio Banderas, Jessie Buckley – and the vocal talents of Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Tom Holland, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, Ralph Fiennes, Craig Robinson, Selena Gomez and John Cena

Universal needs to call animal control. First, it was CATS. Now the studio has another calamity on its hands with DOLITTLE. Who could have imagined that Robert Downey Jr.’s first project after raking in millions as a goateed superhero would get pulled from release not once but twice as substantial reshoots and rewrites caused a post-production meltdown for editors and sound technicians?     

January is a bad month for new releases in general, as Hollywood drops movies it either has little faith in performing in peak months or doesn’t know how to properly market. Every once and a while, there will be a strong performer like Liam Neeson’s TAKEN or Kevin James in PAUL BLART: MALL COP.

DOLITTLE should have been an easy win for Universal on RDJ’s star status alone. I was wrong. So very, very wrong. 

The movie begins in animated fashion (literally) with Emma Thompson narrating. She gets us up to speed about the talks-to-animals veterinarian and the voyages he had with his wife. “Had” being the opportune word, as Dolittle closes his practice and becomes a shut-in after his ladylove dies at sea.

An encouraging start until the introduction to Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young boy from a family of hunters who feels uneasy shooting animals. Yet, after reluctantly shooting a squirrel, Stubbins wanders through a forest and stumbles upon the Dolittle residence needing his help to save the poor animal.

Another annoyance amplifies his intrusion: a royal messenger coming to ask Dolittle to help save a gravely-ill Queen Victoria. This calls for a perilous voyage to an undiscovered island with Dolittle as captain, Stubbins as his uninvited first mate, and a ship full of animals as the crew. Along the journey, they’ll encounter warships, a dragon in need of a colonoscopy, and Antonio Banderas as some pirate king. All of this is true – even the part with the dragon.

Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, left) and Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) in ‘DOLITTLE,” directed by Stephen Gaghan. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

By all accounts, DOLITTLE should play like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN with talking animals doing all sorts of funny antics. But its structure and reliance on Emma Thompson (as the parrot Polynesia) to deliver exposition to cover missing dialogue and scenes subtly kills the story. We hastily breeze through transitions like we were racing to finish storytime and move on to arts and crafts – or nap time, in my case, as the back of my eyelids seemed the better alternative to such a dull movie. 

Wide awake, I would have been baffled with how little explanation we’re given about going from one location to another. Characters are introduced arbitrarily or not at all. There was even a moment where I began to wonder if Stubbins’ relatives were worried about him disappearing during the night to join the voyage. This thought entered my head mere minutes after Dolittle tries to get some incriminating information from an octopus who replies with [subtitled] “snitches get stitches.” Not sure that was common speak for the Victorian era but whatever. Why bother with logic and reason when more bizarrely constructed action sequences await!

What bakes my mind is how this movie monstrosity was co-written and directed by Stephen Gaghan. The same Stephen Gaghan who wrote the Oscar-winning TRAFFIC and wrote and directed the Oscar-winning SYRIANA. Clearly, it’s a case of director-for-hire, Gaghan may have had lofty ambitions for his rendition of Hugh Lofting’s classic literary character, only the results prove otherwise. The story feels slapped together by an assembly line trying to appease those with very short attention spans (ahem, kids). Or, maybe there was a longer version that had to be cut to shreds at the behest of notes sent by the studio.

Worse, still, is the abusing amount of ADR (additional dialogue recording) that went in to fix DOLITTLE in post. The heavily promoted vocal cast (including Rami Malek, Tom Holland, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, Ralph Fiennes, Craig Robinson, and John Cena) is fine. Their voices can be tweaked with relative ease. It’s changing Downey’s Welsh accent to something sounding more standard British English and disguising the other onscreen actors when saying their lines that is quite a sight. Strange. So very strange.

DOLITTLE is a mess technically and in terms of entertainment. The CGI creature comforts surrounding the doctor are a bunch of one-note jokes, and the onscreen stars don’t fare much better. Downey lets his eccentric qualities takeover as Dolittle, just like he did as Sherlock Holmes. Antonio Banderas hams it up in his limited appearance. Up-and-coming star Jessie Buckley (WILD ROSE) spends the entirety of her time on screen in bed. The only satisfying character is Michael Sheen as Dr. Blair Müdfly, personal doctor to the queen and a past scholarly rival to Dolittle. Sheen embraces the cartoon absurdity of the material with Müdfly sporting a severe goatee and whose eyes bulge in the mere presence of Dolittle.

DOLITTLE is such a bad movie. What star presence Downey Jr. had as Tony Stark is nowhere to be found in this lazy narrative where its connective tissue got lost somewhere between the writing room and the editing suite. It’s crude and with little humor. The cast is phoning it in and politely collecting their paychecks. Heed my warning and skip this doctor’s appointment.

Grade: D-

DOLLITLE is now playing nationwide.

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