In a sense, Dolittle is a coup in that it is both silly and yet bizarrely joyless—dragon anus scene includedby Caspar Salmon / February 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
At a certain point during Dolittle my appreciation of Robert Downey Jr’s performance in the lead role tipped from bafflement and despair into genuine concern for him as a person. Eventually, it became hard to watch him playing a man so detached from civilised society that he could only communicate to beasts in a series of grunts and squawks, and not draw disturbing conclusions about the actor himself. For Robert Downey Jr conducts himself, throughout this movie, exactly in the manner of a man who has lost all connection with reality. His acting rests on mad decisions, on ill-conceived whims; his line readings are all over the map. Can he no longer speak human?
A million and one problems attended the making of Dolittle, and each one of them cost at least 175 bucks. Like post-war Berlin, the movie honestly and even movingly flaunts the scars of its discomfiture: rewrites, reshoots, brutal cuts and edits; relentless re-dubbed lines to cover up what must have been a veritable plethora of flubs; over-use of special effects; a spiralling budget evident in pointless aerial shots or scenes filled to the gills with needless extras all making a big ugly mess and noise.
All of this is visible onscreen—and then, at the heart of the film, there’s that big, lumbering, unfortunate performance, which seems to have been the result of a pampered ego making a disastrous decision, abetted by quivering yes-men. Why is RDJ doing a Welsh accent here? Why? WHY? Hearing Doctor Dolittle speak in a voice reminiscent of Rob Brydon imitating Anthony Hopkins in The Trip kills the movie outright—especially because Downey has so little control over the accent that he cannot modulate his voice. He therefore speaks in a sort of whispering growl throughout. This alone tanks the movie, because we need a touch—just a touch—of dynamism to carry us through this harum-scarum story.
That story has been rejigged: what we have here is ‘a take’ on the original, because no narrative —not even a classic like Little Women—can be told simply anymore but it must be reconfigured and turned inside out. This film finds Dolittle retreating from society several years after his apogee as a very clever vet, which ended with the death of his explorer wife. Holed up in his big old mansion with a duck (Octavia Spencer), a parrot (Emma Thompson), a gorilla (Rami Malek) and various other creatures, the doctor is jolted back into life when Queen Victoria, on her deathbed, bids him find a cure in the tropics for the deadly nightshade that has been administered to her by the film’s villains (Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent). So far, so silly and fundamentally harmless—it’s a kids’ film, after all. But even as this premise gets underway, the movie has already spent so much cash conjuring hideously glossy shots of nature or having CGI animals sport with one another, that it loses one’s good graces early on.
In a sense, there’s something endearing about seeing such an old-school star vehicle, an old-fashioned adventure romp. The movie clearly had one eye on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and another on Paddington. (This is especially visible in RDJ’s performance, which falls short of Johnny Depp’s mugging as Captain Jack Sparrow.) But Pirates had verve, and Paddington has jokes and charm. On the other hand, neither franchise has an extended scene of a medical practitioner extracting bagpipes from the anus of a dragon voiced by Frances de la Tour.
That scene, which in other hands might have had a pleasingly Chaucerian appeal, here comes across as just another ropey choice in a film full of relentless sound and fury and bad decisions. Some of those, in full: a straight-up Orientalist/racist interlude on an island populated by “bandits and robbers”; a pair of under-directed, gorgeous, doe-eyed kids in main roles, reduced to vapid reaction shots to convey the wonder we should be feeling at all times; a ceaseless score by Danny Elfman, positively cramming aural glitter into your ears. I’ve saved the film’s biggest sin for last. It’s painful to say, so I will simply state it in one word, and offer no further comment on it, and we must then all attempt to get on with our lives. Okay. Here we go.
Dolittle is a sad film, not least because it comes so soon after the catastrophe of Cats, which dared to fail on a scale that this film doesn’t come close to. All we are left with here is a fiasco in the usual mould, a glossy, expensive, tedious, drastically misbegotten star vehicle that got plumbed by a terrible lead performance and then torpedoed further by studio interference. But in a world of superheroes and safe bets, there’s something quite cosy and relaxing about seeing this sort of familiar failure set sail once more for adventure.