Film Review: Dolittle

dolittle index
I didn’t originally have much interest in Dolittle and I’ve a real fondness for talking animal films and have seen such idiocy as Show Dogs and The Karate Dog, but the trailer was one of the worst I’ve seen and put me off completely. But then I heard that one aspect of the big finale involves bagpipes and a dragon’s anus and knew from that second on it was a film I needed to see as soon as I could. But even though that moment is a truly unusual one it’s a frequently disappointing movie, and a distinctly average one too.

An animated prologue gives us the backstory where Dolittle’s ability to talk to the animals is explained along with the fact that he’s apparently become a recluse after his beloved wife Lily died while off on an adventure. Refusing to leave his giant, animal filled estate it appears he spends his days sitting around playing chess with a gorilla, using mice as the pieces, and chatting to the various animals using sign language, squawks or squeaks. But after a minute or two of this they let us hear the animals speak, presumably so an all star voice cast (including Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Holland and Craig Robinson) might appeal to cinema goers, though I can’t help but feel it would have been far more entertaining if they’d stuck to the initial set up.

Of course seeing Dolittle fuck about his house and annoy animals wouldn’t have made for a thrilling film so firstly a young boy called Tommy (Harry Collett) accidentally shoots a squirrel and so goes to Dolittle for help, while a young girl pops out of the blue to say that Queen Victoria has summoned him to Buckingham Palace as she has a polar bear partially stuck in her arse. Or some kind of illness, I have to admit to occasionally not always paying close attention. When Dolittle arrives at Buckingham Palace he uses a dog to help him diagnose the queen where he discovers “Something smells wrong and that’s is from a guy who loves the smells of butts”, and then chats to an Octopus in the queen’s fish tank, who informs him that some rare plant has poisoned her, so Dolittle must track down the antidote which involves heading off on a perilous journey,

It’s such an odd, misjudged, bizarre film that you can’t help but wonder how it ever got past the script stage, and presumably it was all down to the fact that Downey Jr had made millions thanks to the Marvel movies and so the producers thought audiences would watch any old shit with him in it. It’s also apparently the result of a number of reshoots after the original cut was found to be rather dour, with a number of different directors drafted in to save it, but sadly they failed to do so and from the sound of it are the reason why it’s such a curious mishmash of ideas.

The weakest part is Downey Jr’s performance, for the first time in his career he’s a charisma vacuum, and he adopts an enormously distracting Welsh accent as he was supposedly influenced by a 19th Century doctor, despite the character not being Welsh in the books or other films. If it was a decent stab at the accent it wouldn’t be a problem but it’s pretty shocking in places and sounds variously Scottish, Irish and even Indian, and so just seems weird. And that sums up the film in general, with it containing all manner of oddness including the shot squirrel having strange hallucinations and then vowing revenge on Tommy, while to make things worse the animals are annoyingly sassy, to the extent that they could have been Steven Moffat written Doctor Who companions who would’ve fitted right in with the series. Despite the period setting the gags are very modern, that shouldn’t necessarily mean they’re unfunny but it all feels forced, and often the sound of the voices just seems wrong, again this shouldn’t always be an issue but the weakness of the script means it feels rather glaring.

A few bits work, Michael Sheen hams it up delightfully as the villain, some of the slapstick made me laugh, like in one part where Dolittle grabs a parrot and throws it in to the sea, sure it lives but it’s a peculiarly callous moment. There’s also a couple of oddly surreal moments too, like a fly who avoids being swatted and so thinks he’s “The chosen one”, only to be then eaten by a passing seagull, and there’s a weird parody of The Godfather involving ants and a dragonfly, while a fight between a gorilla and a lion involves deliberate and encouraged testicle abuse. A few of the set pieces are also quite inventive, and visually it looks pretty great and the cgi animals are mostly convincing, but once again it’s the quality of the script that makes it such a misfire. Too many of the jokes are plain poor, cringeworthy puns or just rubbish gags that will make you wince, and there’s also a fifteen minute bit just before the big finale that drags painfully.

It’s the kind of film that isn’t bad enough to become a cult classic or mediocre enough to be something that might entertain for a while on a Sunday afternoon, it’s only 89 minutes long and yet it’s still drawn out and the good bits are few and far between. The aforementioned dragon scene is one of the most outlandish things I’ve ever seen and did leave my jaw agape for several minutes, but it’s not enough to save the movie from being a mostly turgid affair, and one which is best ignored.

★★

Alex Finch.
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