Monday, January 13, 2020

"Dolittle": two-paragraph review

2020's "Dolittle" is directed by Stephen Gaghan (who?) and stars Robert Downey, Jr. as the wild-haired, eccentric Doctor John Dolittle. An opening voiceover narration by a macaw (Emma Thompson) explains that Dolittle had the ability to talk to animals in their own respective tongues, and he fell in love with an intrepid explorer named Lily (Kasia Smutniak, barely in the movie). When Lily died during one of her solo adventures, Dolittle became despondent and closed down his medical/veterinary practice, shuttering himself in his grandiose estate—a property granted him by Victoria, queen of England (Jessie Buckley). Years later, the Queen is dying of an unknown cause, and she specifically requests that Dolittle come and treat her. Dolittle is persuaded by both the animals living on his property and a boy named Stubbins (Harry Collett), an animal lover who has accidentally shot a squirrel named Kevin (Craig Robinson). Dolittle discovers the queen has been poisoned, and the antidote can only be found on a remote, fantastical island. Swallowing his distaste for adventure, Dolittle, Stubbins, and a host of animals set out on a journey to find the island, acquire the potent fruit of a mysterious tree, and save the Queen.

"Dolittle" is, unfortunately, one of those films whose preview trailer is far better than the movie itself. I so, so wanted to like this movie, given my love of Saint Francis-style tales of animal-human communion and my general fondness for talking-animal characters, but in the end, I found it un-funny and painfully tedious. It might be that little kids will enjoy the film, but for me, as a crotchety 50-something, I had trouble understanding how the filmmakers could assemble this much amazing acting and voice talent, then shoehorn the cast into a plodding, predictable narrative utterly lacking in imagination and deep sentiment. Maybe this project is cursed: Eddie Murphy's 1998 version of the story did modestly well at the box office but was torn apart by rabid critics. This newest version of the tale attempts to go back to the original stories, which included fanciful beasts like the pushmi-pullyu (a double-headed goat/gazelle thing with two opposite-facing fronts and no rear), but the movie does a poor job of integrating Victorian-era sensibilities with modern humor (most of the animals speak in modern American English). Downey himself doesn't seem to be fully committed to the project: while he's received praise for his English accent in the Sherlock films, his accent here is a mushed-together attempt at Scottish and English, and his efforts at zany slapstick humor appear half-hearted at best—a far cry from his work in "Chaplin." The scriptwriting is also fairly sloppy: when Stubbins enters Dolittle's property via a secret entrance, we never learn how the queen's young messenger, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), gets onto the property without triggering any traps. We also never learn how it is that the animals understand each other: Dolittle speaks to each animal in its own language, so unless the animals are all also gifted with Dolittle's linguistic talent, their ability to inter-communicate doesn't make much sense. Scenes are played more for comedy than for sentiment, but the comedy tends to be so hackneyed and so telegraphed that every joke and gag is both predictable and flat. "Doolittle" immediately supplanted "The Rise of Skywalker" as the number-one film in the South Korean market, and I can't understand why. Maybe Robert Downey is that much of a draw for foreign audiences. (Downey's young buddy Tom Holland voices a faithful hound in the story; perhaps Holland is a draw, too.) Maybe Koreans approach Western comedy differently from Western audiences. For me, the only truly funny moments involved a tiger named Barry (Ralph Fiennes), who alternates between wanting to kill and eat Dolittle and wanting to continue his psychotherapy with the man. Antonio Banderas is an impressive presence in the role of pirate king Rassoulim, the father of Lily. Had the script been smarter, it would have explored Rassoulim's relationship with Doolittle more deeply—given that they both had Lily in common—but I was barely ten minutes into the story when I realized this wasn't going to be a smart movie. What a waste of prime talent. I blame the writers and the director.

ADDENDUM: my English friend Neil—who also saw the movie this weekend with his son—points out the possibility that Downey may have been going for a Welsh accent. I've confused Scottish and Welsh before, and I freely admit I don't have the best ear for these accents compared to someone who's actually from the British Isles (Neil also attended university in Wales). Welsh, to me, sounds like a somewhat bent or warped form of Scottish, but how Welsh sounds depends in part on who's doing the talking. Christian Bale, for example, sounds rather different from fellow Welshman Rhys Ifans. To me, Bale sounds slightly more English while Ifans sounds slightly more Scottish. Anyway, Neil deftly supports his contention with a link to a BBC article: "Is Robert Downey Jr.'s Dr. Dolittle Character Welsh?"


John Mac said...

So, I take it they didn't cover Dolittle's raid over Tokyo? :)

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't know if I am right on this, but shouldn't one say "but as for me" in the sentence below [see bracketed word]?

"It might be that little kids will enjoy the film, but [as] for me, as a crotchety 50-something, I had trouble understanding how the filmmakers could assemble this much amazing acting and voice talent, then shoehorn the cast into a plodding, predictable narrative utterly lacking in imagination and deep sentiment."

I could go into more detail, but I type too slowly, and you are the one person I know with broader, deeper knowledge of grammar than I have, so you will likely recognize what troubles me in the sentence I've noted.

And probably explain why there is no problem . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

Not being very strong in history, I had to look that reference up!

Interesting to see that the "Doolittle" in "Doolittle's Raid" is spelled with two "O"s. In my previous post mentioning Dr. Dolittle, I had mistakenly spelled the surname that way as well.

Kevin Kim said...


I think "but as for me" is a perfectly legitimate locution in that context, but I'm not convinced that my own phrasing is incorrect. "But for me," in this case, is merely shorthand for "but from my perspective." Adding the "as" doesn't seem to add any seemingly missing information, and in the context you mentioned, "but for me" won't be confused with "except for me" unless one is deliberately, wilfully misreading my sentence. If anything, adding the "as" would introduce the aesthetic problem of having the word appear twice in rapid succession.

It's an interesting question, though, because I'm now wondering whether "but for me" and "but as for me" are interchangeable in all contexts or only in some, and what rule, if any, might determine that. Both phrases introduce an independent clause thanks to the coordinating conjunction "but," with the "for me"/"as for me" being grammatically irrelevant because it doesn't determine the grammatical nature of what follows the "but."

I'll have to ponder this point. Am I effectively arguing that the "as" is never necessary? I instinctively don't want to go that far because, as I wrote at the beginning of this reply, I think "but as for me" is perfectly legitimate, yet I can't think of a case in which the two phrases would lead to two distinctly different semantic outcomes.

This is all a roundabout way of saying "I don't know." I don't know what grammatical imperative there might be to add the "as" unless we're dealing with a petrified expression, and at the same time, I'm not convinced that the phrase is a petrified expression, which I'd why I'm comfortable with what I wrote.

Is that enough overthinking for you? I'll do some research and get back to you with a better answer.