Starring Robert Downey Jr, Antonio Banderas
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Out of Four
Just as high expectations can kill a film, going in expecting a disaster can make a mildly diverting film a pleasant surprise. I have a strict rule of never allowing myself to develop even moderate expectations for a January release, because when you do that you are inevitably disappointed by movies that were guaranteed to begin with to be duds. All of this is to say that I went into Dolittle well aware that between its January release date and troubled production history, it was likely to be a trainwreck. And while it’s certainly not a classic or likely to spawn a major franchise, it’s a relief that it’s also not a colossal failure. It’s a flawed but fairly entertaining movie. Which for a January release is akin to “instant classic”.
While Robert Downey Jr is obviously good casting in the title role of Hugh Lofting’s doctor who can talk to the animals, writer- director Stephen Gaghan is a baffling choice for the material. What exactly in Traffic, Syriana or even the sometimes dryly comic Gold lead anyone to believe this director was cut out for children’s fantasy? In fact, Gaghan’s early cut of the film tested poorly, and rewrites and reshoots were took place, with director Jonathan Liebsman brought in to assist. That’s right: the guy they chose to save the movie has as his career highlight the first and lesser of the two Michael Bay produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. So again, it’s a welcome surprise that I had fun with Dolittle, and could see myself sitting through it again.
None if this to say that it doesn’t have problems: the pacing is choppy, particularly in the first half, where the film often seems to be moving too fast and too slow at the same time. The film seems unable to decide whether it’s going for a straight British period fantasy like Steven Spielberg’s The BFG or an anachronistic parody more along the lines of Shrek. There’s an unsurprising but still annoying emphasis on bodily function jokes. And the visusl effects are a bit inconsistent, including one jaw-dropping where I saw something I hadn’t seen since 2006 and thought I’d never see again: a human character fully turning into obvious CG in the middle of a stunt.
But I found myself caught up in the film’s whimsical, adventurous spirit, and enjoying the chemistry between Downey and his animal companions (Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek and Emma Thompson are standouts among the distinguished voice cast.). And as the villain of the piece, Michael Sheen gives one of those glorious performances we sometimes get from him where he knows exactly the right type and level of over the top and hits it perfectly. While some of the jokes don’t connect, just enough do (again, particularly in the scene with Fiennes’ neurotic tiger.).
So, it’s best to go in keeping your expectations on the low end. Doctor Dolittle isn’t going to rival Tony Stark or even Sherlock Holmes on the list of Downey’s most remembered roles. But for the first blockbuster release of the year, we could do a lot worse. And we usually have.