Saturday, 18 January 2020

Dolittle (2020) - Movie Review

When you’re someone who’s railed against the cinematic plague that is family films about talking animals for as long as I have, reviews like this are inevitable. A look at what can be considered the initial harbinger for the favourite kid-pleasing gimmick of hacks around the world: Doctor Dolittle.

Big-budget adaptations of the original series of books are… basically cursed, from what I can tell. From the hype disaster of the 1967 version with Rex Harrison, to the admittedly decent Eddie Murphy version (that would end up spawning a league of straight-to-video sequels, making whatever merit its beginning had pretty much moot), this isn’t a story known for doing well at the box office. And fresh off of his linchpin performance in what is now the highest-grossing film of all time, Robert Downey Jr. is the latest to try his hand at this infamous character. And it seems like we have somehow reached a new low for this property.

One of the reputed inspirations for the original character was real-life Scottish surgeon John Hunter, an important figure in the history of our understanding of medicine and science. This is the only scrap of rationalisation I can find to explain why in the hell RDJ thought that going with a Scottish accent here was a good idea. Aside from being whispered into oblivion, his clear difficulty with the accent results in some unusually stilted delivery. To say nothing of the bevy of acting talent behind the talking animals themselves, from Emma Thompson the parrot to Rami Malek the gorilla to John Cena the polar bear, all of whom are just as awkward and grating to watch.

Not that this is the kind of writing that could be saved even by pitch-perfect casting to begin with. Having covered my fair share of what passes for humour in this breed of cinema, I feel comfortable in asserting that this is some of the weakest shit yet. It’s not just that the jokes are consistent duds, although that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that these are the most basic, predictable, ‘the kids in the audience could write better’ jokes you could imagine.

The anachronistic words coming out of the animals, while distracting, ends up being an afterthought in the face of how director Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand aren’t even trying with this script. I’d say they pulled it right out of their respective arses, if I wasn’t painfully aware that they’re much more interested in shoving things in that part of the body. Good Dude, that ending is something else.

So, it’s basically what I’ve come to expect from talking animal movies, just with a blockbuster budget. Except this doesn’t even have pleasing big-budget visuals to lean back on because this film is as ugly as a gorilla’s rectum to the face. The CGI work is wonky, made even worse by the craptastic integration with the live-action footage, and the overall aesthetic seems to be stuck in-between Spielberg’s Adventures Of Tintin and Pirates Of The Caribbean.

It’s an adventure on the high seas for a magic miracle fruit, where the adventure is tepid and lacking in cohesion from scene to scene, and the high seas look like the film is trying to siphon the bad luck from blockbuster pirate movies to make itself look better. It's basically drowning in self-imposed whimsy, to the point where it's impossible to take its feeble grabs for poignancy seriously, feeling like a treacle and glitter smoothie more than anything else. The seeming-insistence that it has to lean on the talking animal puns makes it taste it even worse, as if its hefty budget price-tag still isn't enough to work with.

And that is basically this whole damn mess in a nutshell: It's all bass-ackwards. Its attempts at profundity with Dolittle’s character only make me appreciate the genuinely touching moments from Eddie Murphy even more, and the garish sheen of the visuals actually make me look back on the Rex Harrison version and appreciate that they at least did practical effects. It is effectively a bottom-of-the-barrel talking animal flick, artificially charged with a big studio budget, managing to only further highlight the utter lack of sense put into so much of the production at large. The first truly bad movie of the year, and even with the next 11 months’ worth of potential awful, chances are good that I might end up revisiting this film in a certain list further down the line.

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