‘Dolittle’ does nothing new with its tale
There was certainly a lot of talking going on during the filming of “Dolittle,” but it wasn’t from the animals. Early last year, a supposedly disgruntled crew member took to social media to blast the production and its director, Stephen Gaghan.
Now, take into consideration that this was an anonymous post, and films as effects-heavy as “Dolittle” often involve a small army of talent in a variety of areas, so there’s always bound to be some tension. That said, there were undoubtedly issues last fall when the film had already reached its $175 million budget and test screenings revealed it was in need of some surgery to connect with audiences.
Gaghan is known primarily for more drama-centric films, such as “Traffic” and “Syriana,” and not as practiced in the family-friendly CGI-fest that Universal had in mind. The original release date was set for the highly prized 2019 Memorial Day weekend, which seemed fitting for a film headlined by Robert Downey Jr., sandwiched between “Avengers” films. In April, though, the studio shoved it to the colder (literally and metaphorically) month of January, the following year. Typically, not a good sign.
All told, there were apparently 21 days of reshoots, and additional script elements were handed off to Chris McKay, director of “The Lego Batman Movie.” His job was to help add elements of quirky humor delivered by its A-list cast of character voices, including Tom Holland, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, and others.
And viewing the film, not all the flaws have been corrected, but it’s certainly an improvement over the Eddie Murphy potty-humor paycheck back in the late ‘90s. This version manages to be a mildly diverting – if technically spotty – winter cinematic outing for families.
In what could easily be considered as a passed-over Johnny Depp vehicle, ”Dolittle” sees Downey Jr. in full mad misanthrope mode trotting the globe, passing for a Jack Sparrow sibling (minus the chronic alcoholism). Downey uses the role to try out what I believe is a Welsh accent, and it’s fairly evident the film is aimed at launching a franchise (there are eight books covering the good doctor’s adventures).
Downey starts the film with various animalistic impersonations, which, given the actor’s penchant for delving into roles, wouldn’t surprise if he wished to learn duck and dog for the role. Thankfully, the film quickly transforms into the animal voiceover, so we are not subjected to a growling Downey throughout, just the aforementioned strange Welsh elocution.
There are also some dodgy effects (a one-eyed rabbit that makes the first cinematic “Sonic” rendering look like a Matisse), and the human characters (Michael Sheen, Antonio Banderas) are given little else but reactions, but there are enough bubbly one-liners from its animated cast to make “Dolittle” worthy of the big screen. Throughout the frenetic chaos, there are beats of humor that are cute enough to keep parents' attention while all the animals and worldly landscapes continue to whiz by.
Sure, the severely overlooked “Dora” film did all this much better, and parents are urged to seek that out if their youngsters are clamoring for more adventure of this sort, but there are certainly far worse options than “Dolittle,” including pretty much every sequel following the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” film.
“Dolittle” does nothing new with its tale (hell, Disney has been putting talking animals in its adventures for years), and it does indeed reflect a number of fingerprints left all over the picture, but not enough to cloud it from further adventures. Given a tighter narrative rein, a director more experienced with the formula, and a vow from the voice actors to return, further “Dolittle” journeys could be charted.