Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

Review: ‘Dolittle’ is an unmitigated disaster

At just over an hour and a half long, the entire film has clearly been tinkered with and constrained in an attempt to make it coherent

From left, Michael Sheen, John Cena, Rami Malek, Carmel Laniado, Harry Collett, Selena Gomez and Robert Downey Jr at the premiere of ‘Dolittle’ in Los Angeles Reuters
From left, Michael Sheen, John Cena, Rami Malek, Carmel Laniado, Harry Collett, Selena Gomez and Robert Downey Jr at the premiere of ‘Dolittle’ in Los Angeles Reuters

Dolittle is an unmitigated disaster. But to blame just one person for its failing doesn’t seem fair, as a lot of people obviously made a lot of bad choices during its development and production.

There’s Robert Downey Jr’s incomprehensible performance as the titular veterinarian, a threadbare plot that somehow unfolds like it was an afterthought, while dozens of mangled jokes and failed punchlines are ruined by either its writing, direction, deliveries, or visual effects, sometimes all of them at the same time.

However, the most egregious part of Dolittle is that it somehow reportedly cost more than $175 million (Dh642.6m) to make, yet it literally has no redeeming features whatsoever.

The very first minutes of the film, which is based on Hugh Lofting’s series of children’s books that were first published in the early 1920s, tease that things aren’t going to proceed smoothly. During its twee opening animated sequence, we’re flippantly told that Dr John Dolittle’s wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) died at sea, which provoked the eccentric vet and doctor to become a recluse with only his animals as friends. Dolittle used his time wisely, though, as he learnt to communicate with them.

Then, seven years later, after accidentally shooting a squirrel, teenager Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) breaks into Dolittle’s compound, where he is so impressed by the hermit’s ability to talk to the animals that he instantly anoints himself his apprentice. The duo are soon thrust into action, as Dolittle is summoned to Buckingham Palace to treat Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who is dying from a mysterious illness. The doctor deduces that the only cure is on a mythical island, which he soon sets sail for alongside Stubbins and his posse of pets.

The obvious flimsiness of Dolittle’s plot, as well as the alleged production problems that are believed to have repeatedly blighted filming, could all have been partly salvaged by a charismatic leading performance. Especially when that leading man is Robert Downey Jr, whose performances as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past 12 years have turned him into one of the most beloved actors working today, while also proving that he has the weight, humour and presence to immediately improve any film.

Unfortunately for Dolittle, though, having basically only played Tony Stark during the aforementioned time period, Downey Jr saw the perfect ­opportunity to do something different with the vet. The ­result is a mumbling and baffling portrayal.

Downey does deserve credit for actually delivering a pretty flawless Welsh accent. But while Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Rhys Ifans and Rob Brydon, to name just four of the country’s most famous actors, often fill up a room with their booming dulcet tones, Downey’s inflection does the complete opposite. Scenes fall flat because of his nervous and rambling portrayal, and while that admittedly suits his grieving and withdrawn version of Dolittle, it feels completely at odds with the mood that the movie is trying to create.

There are many, many more problems with Dolittle, though. At just over an hour and a half long, the entire film has clearly been tinkered with and constrained in an attempt to make it coherent. Sub-plots, character relationships, and even jokes are seemingly discarded, while elaborate action set pieces are uneven and ­disjointed, and gorgeous locations and sets are briefly shown but never focused on. The result is a film that’s so convoluted and poorly constructed, that one can only wonder just how unintelligible the first cut was.

From the entire cast and crew of Dolittle, just Michael Sheen, Jason Mantzoukas and Antonio Banderas can lay claim to enhancing it with their work. Sheen’s hammy villain and Mantzoukas’s deranged dragonfly manage to create the only laugh-out-loud moments, while the sight of a greying Banderas dressed as the king of pirates Rassouli, with golden rings and chains draped across his body, is unsurprisingly spectacular.

This shouldn’t be the case, though. Far from it. As Dolittle also stars Oscar winners Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer and Marion Cotillard as well as two-time nominee Ralph Fiennes. Its ensemble is rounded off with the comedic talent and enthusiasm of John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson and Selena Gomez.

The fact that they’re all ­wasted just isn’t good enough. In fact, it is the definitive proof of Dolittle’s ghastliness. So much so that, even though we’re just a few weeks into the new year, 2020 will be hard pressed to offer up a bigger cinematic catastrophe.

Dolittle is out in cinemas across the UAE

Updated: January 14, 2020 07:35 PM

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