Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Dolittle Does Little Successfully

"My dad left for a pack of seals and never came back." - Yoshi the Polar Bear (John Cena) in Dolittle.

If it was possible for a movie to sweat, Dolittle would be practically soaked in perspiration. Like a stand-up comic scrambling to find a punchline that will resonate with a crowd, Dolittle tries every well-worn trick in the book to please viewers.  Do you like CGI animals with celebrity voices? Do you like out-of-nowhere references to The Godfather? What about prolonged fart gags? Characters screaming endlessly at each other? It's all the worst kind of comedy that populates the lowest-common-denominator family movies and it's all Dolittle can come up with to try and entertain audiences. In its endlessly manic efforts to please viewers, Dolittle ends up creating the love-child of the worst Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Open Season. This is a combination that simply should not be.

One can tell that Dolittle is already struggling on a storytelling level during an animated prologue where it's revealed that Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) is in a state of despair after his wife perished in apparently the same stormy boat ride that sent Anna and Elsa's parents to their grave. Yes, Dolittle's first big character beat for its own version of the doctor who can talk to animals is to give him a tired backstory informed by the "fridging" trope. Huzzah. After this, a young boy, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), stumbles onto Dolittle's manor, which has been isolated from the outside world ever since Dolittle's wife died. The first live-action scene we see of Dolittle sees him engaging in animal noise conversation with assorted beasts without any subtitles to let us know what they're saying. All the hoots, growls and squeaks go on forever and evoke that opening of The Star Wars Holiday Special where we just follow Chewbacca's Wookie family roaring at each other for ages.

Soon after Tommy and Dolittle meet, it's revealed that the Queen of England is sick and in need of someone to retrieve a magical fruit that can cure her. Dolittle, spurred on by the fact that he loses his manor if the Queen dies, embarks on this quest accompanied by Tommy and a gaggle of his talking animal sidekicks. Through their escapades, Dolittle and company have to face a terrifying threat known as awkward comedy. Part of how Dolittle gratingly tries to constantly please everybody is that it won't let a moment breathe without shoving in a CGI animal to deliver a strained attempt at a one-liner. Even a moment where a dragon devours a human being has to be accompanied by the sight gag of a duck laying an egg in fear. Much of this ham-fisted comedy emerges through the type of jokes Patton Oswalt was once asked to write for an animated movie, where it's just random side characters character spouting random wacky comedic exclamations entirely divorced from the story.

Nobody may "...fall onto their bottom and into some butterscotch" in Dolittle but it too frequently relies on cutting to CGI animals (particularly a squirrel played by Craig Robinson) standing alone in the frame and dropping some attempt at witty dialogue that's about as pleasant to hear as nails on a chalkboard. So many of these jokes are beyond being old-hat, they're outright ancient! While Dolittle focuses so much time on cramming as many tired gags into its runtime as possible, so many important elements of a family movie get lost in the shuffle Where are the endearing characters you can get invested in? Where's the heart? Where's the humor that doesn't make you wanna roll your eyes?

Dolittle is a movie desperate to please but its only idea of delivering pleasure is through stilted cutaway gags that tend to milk certain comedic side characters well beyond their breaking point. A housefly voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, for instance, is a character Dolittle desperately wants to turn into the next Genie/Olaf. But his lines are more creepy than funny ("Your feathers filled out nicely!" he says to Emma Thompson's parrot character at one point) and his random appearances throughout the runtime are abrasive rather than funny. Such comedic digressions are already plenty a nuisance by being so gravely unfunny but the emphasis on such dismal gags over interesting personalities ensures that Dolittle and his critters never feel like a family that "belongs together". These aren't characters, they're just a bunch of machines to deliver awkward focus-grouped comedic asides.

Other character-based aspects of the messy screenplay (credited to a trio of writers, including the director of Dolittle, Stephen Gaghan) are similarly miserable in their execution. The most unsatisfying of these elements is the baffling decision to have all the animal sidekicks conquer their personal problems (a gorilla voiced by Rami Malek is a scaredy-cat, for example) well before the climax is underway, leaving the CGI animal characters with nothing to do in the last half-hour of Dolittle. The flimsy script for Dolittle is a sloppily-written affair while director Stephen Gaghan seems to be out of his depth on this project. Dolittle is something clearly aiming for a whimsical fantasy touch but it's a style Gaghan (a filmmaker known for directing adult dramas Syriana and Gold) just can't capture. Gaghan's attempts at executing wacky comedy or spirited adventure are frequently just derivative of other movies and not even very good movies at that!

Part of Gaghan's slipshod direction is a myriad of poorly-conceived performances. Every actor in Dolittle (live-action or voice-over) is playing things as broadly as possible. It's a key part of how the movie is sweating profusely to garner audience enthusiasm, talented actors like Michael Sheen are hired solely to do obnoxious over-the-top mugging. Unfortunately, the worst performance on hand is the one that must anchor the whole movie. Yes, Robert Downey Jr. The actor responsible for such great work in the likes of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zodiac is channeling Johnny Depp circa. 2013 with his lazily eccentric lead performance in Dolittle. This version of the man who can talk and squawk to the a laundry list of uninteresting quirky traits rather than a person. Robert Downey Jr. flatly flails around on-screen in a tediously calculated attempt to make the Tony Stark/Sherlock Holmes lightning strike once again. To boot, Downey Jr. brings the character to life through an accent that's confoundingly all-over-the-map.

Would that Dolittle's accent was the most baffling part of this project whose lazy and chaotic nature is epitomized early on during a baffling chase scene. Such a sequence focuses on Tommy, who is being taken to Dolittle by a giraffe and a fox However, all of a sudden, they're being chased by a squad of police officers. Where did they come from? Where are they chasing them? Even Dolittle realizes this abrupt chase scene makes no sense so it tries to lazily lampshade the problem through a "hilarious" one-liner about the giraffe being wanted in four different forests. However, even the youngest of viewers will likely realize how this awkwardly-executed chase scene is emblematic of how Dolittle's plot is a bunch of boring loud set pieces frantically scrambling for audience approval. Dolittle can sweat all it likes, but when your material is this bad, well, you're stuck with the kind of deep-rooted artistic problems that no amount of perspiration will be able to solve.

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