'Dolittle' (2019) Review: Talking To No One
2020 is not even a month in and we already have not only one of the worst movies of the year, but a strong contender for a spot on the worst of decade list. Yet unlike so many films as bad as this one, it seems ‘Dolittle’ is a victim of its own ambition. The casting is inspired, the visual effects impressive, and it’s led by the leading man of the last decade, Iron Man. Everything points to ‘Dolittle’ being a runaway hit. Would that it were so simple.
Upon opening, the film shows promise. The tale of Doctor Dolittle and his wife traversing the world unfolds is beautifully simple animation. It’s a touching beginning to what is otherwise a turgid and unmitigated disaster of a film. After a lifetime of adventures, Dolittle became a shut in after the death of his wife, keeping his genius from the world at large. If only his film took the same approach, keeping itself from the viewing public.
From that point, Dolittle becomes the target of two persistent children. One, an animal lover bringing an injured squirrel to the good doctor’s attention (Thanks to the guidance of a talking parrot voiced by Emma Thompson who, bless her heart, is giving the performance of a lifetime). The other, the child assitant to a child queen who has suddenly fallen ill, and is resistant to conventional medicine. The only answer is of course, the doctor with unorthodox methods.
Those methods include but are not limited to regular conversations with wild animals. The film decides to show you these conversations from two perspectives. The first is expected. It features the talented voice cast as various creatures, anthropomorphized and trying their best with dialogue meant to satisfy 8 year olds. Actually, even 8 year olds would call this stuff basic. Think of the kind of puns you read at the end of a popsicle stick, and that’s what ‘Dolittle’ has to offer.
Then there’s the other method, in which the perspective shifts from Dolittle’s, to the other characters. They watch on as Academy Award nominated actor Robert Downey Jr. beats his chest like a gorilla, and quacks like a duck. Dolittle doesn’t talk to animals through any magic spell or advanced technology. He simply speaks gorilla. If Downey’s cross cultural accent wasn’t mistifying enough, this performance certainly is.
Though you mostly hear the animals sound like their actors, the introduction to Dolittle’s mode of communication is so disorienting that it coloured my experience for the rest of the film. Not to mention, if Dolittle is speaking to the animals in their own languages, how in the world are they communicating with each other? When the polar bear and the ostrich get into bickering, are they speaking polar bear or ostrich, or does every animal instinctively know what the rest are saying? Questions, I have several, yet the answers still elude me.
So, fundamentally, ‘Dolittle’ is a weird picture that left me feeling unsettled once things get going. Then on top of that, there’s the bad dialogue, bad puns galore, and editing that is downright awkward. It doesn’t stop there. Most of Dolittle feels like it takes place in the magical world of Green Screenia. The environments feel airbrushed to oblivion, which is even more disorienting with the amount of cg characters already robbing the movie of any realism. Then there’s the villain of the whole thing, played by Golden Globe nominated actor Michael Sheen, who feels like he thought this was going to turn out to be way more clever than it is.
I can’t blame anyone for this film. It’s filled with things that felt like they would be the natural places to go for a first draft of a Dolittle movie. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to have been a second draft. That said, it is an absolute majesty to watch, and one of the weirdest films I’ve seen in a long time. If the filmmaking weren’t so shoddy, I’d recommend it as a catch it on cable. I still think you should see it, but only from the most morbid of curiosities, or as the guiltiest of pleasures.
Rating: Read A Book