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DOLITTLE

Producers: Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum and Susan Downey   Director: Stephen Gaghan   Screenplay: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand   Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Kasia Smutniak, Ralph Ineson, Carmel Laniado, Frances de la Tour, Jason Mantzoukas and Joanna Page   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  D

Even the animated prologue is mediocre in this latest effort to devise a likable family film from Hugh Lofting’s century-old stories about the doctor who could talk to animals.  The initial attempt, Richard Fleischer’s elephantine 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison, was a monumental disaster (which nonetheless was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best picture—go figure), and though the two slapsticky modernizations starring Eddie Murphy fared a bit better, they were certainly no classics.  The third time around is, amazingly enough, the worst of the bunch, a chaotic, thoroughly charmless trashing of a once-beloved character.

Stephen Gaghan and his cohorts were inspired—though that word hardly applies in this context—by the second in Lofting’s series, the 1922 “Voyages of Doctor Dolittle,” but to call their adaptation loose would be a severe understatement.  After the prologue, which sketches Dolittle’s (Robert Downey Jr.) marriage to the lovely Lily (Kasia Smutniak), we are informed that she has perished on a voyage to find the mysterious island where a miraculous tree is reported to exist.  He becomes a total recluse, cloistered on the estate given him by the queen, where he lives with his menagerie of animals led by the redoubtable macaw Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson).

His serenity is shattered when two outsiders appear.  One is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a soft-hearted local lad who brings a squirrel he accidently shot in for treatment and begs to become Dolittle’s apprentice, and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who informs him that the queen (Jessie Buckley), who had given Dolittle his estate, is gravely ill and requires his ministrations.  Since his possession of the estate is contingent on the queen’s survival, he reluctantly speeds to her beside, and Tommy—as well as the stable of animals—tags along.

Dolittle quickly determines that the queen requires medicine from that miraculous tree sought by his late wife, and is off on a voyage to find the island that houses it; Tommy, of course, will stow away on the ship, and most of the animals will take to the sea as well.  But there will be two major problems.  One is that Dolittle’s vessel is being pursued by a British warship captained by his great rival Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, apparently attempting to emulate Terry-Thomas at his most frantic), who is in the employ of the nefarious Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent, utterly wasted and looking uncomfortable in his stiff uniform).  The other is that to secure his wife’s journal, Dolittle will have to penetrate the castle of Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), his father-in-law, who hates him for taking away his daughter and wants to feed him to a ravenous tiger named Barry (Ralph Fiennes), whose treatment for family issues the doctor broke off years before.

The episodic tale ends, of course, at the mysterious isle where Dolittle and his crew are confronted not only by Müdfly but by a fire-breathing dragon (Frances de la Tour), who threatens to devour our heroes until Dolittle solves a medical problem she’s suffering from.

Much of the purported amusement in the movie, especially for children, comes from Dolittle’s stable of yammering critters which, in addition to Thompson’s Polynesia, includes a dog (Tom Holland) who stays behind to guard the queen, and those that go off with him—a gorilla (Rami Malek), a polar bear (John Cena), an ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), a duck (Octavia Spencer), a giraffe (Selena Gomez), a fox (Marion Cotillard) and a lioness (Carmen Ejogo).  They’re joined in Rassouli’s kingdom by a motor-mouthed dragonfly (Jason Mantzoukas).  But any charm this overstuffed bunch of beasties might have had is snuffed out by the chaotic action and overlapping dialogue, as well as a surfeit of the potty humor endemic to kids’ movies nowadays.

Nor do the humans compensate.  Downey’s attempt to accentuate Dolittle’s eccentricity misfires badly.  Employing a weird accent that seems dubbed in post-production and mumbling most of his lines sotto voce, while flailing about physically, he’s not dull, but more exhausting than engaging.  Banderas growls and grumbles wearing a beard that suggests he’d prefer not to be recognized (understandable, under the circumstances).  Collett is a pleasant lad who smiles a lot, but is otherwise a fairly colorless juvenile lead.  Both Buckley and Laniado prove to have what amount to throwaway roles. 

This would seem to be a pretty expensive production, but it looks terrible.  The animal effects are fine, but Dominic Watkins’ production design is messy, and Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography subpar; their less than stellar appearance is exacerbated by Craig Alpert’s scattershot editing.  Things aren’t helped by a bloated score from Danny Elfman, who can usually be relied on to add a touch of magical whimsy to such material but fails signally to do so here.           

The result makes you wonder whether this kind of material was just out of the wheelhouse of writer-director Stephen Gaghan, whose previous work as writer of “Traffic” and director of “Syriana” and “Gold” suggests he’s more at home with grittier stuff.  But even so he could have exercised more discipline over the project, though to be honest it might have been difficult for anybody to control a large-scale endeavor in which a star as mercurial as Downey was serving as an executive producer (and his wife as one of the producers).  In any event, this “Dolittle” goes far to reflect its title, since it offers virtually nothing to enjoy. 

JUST MERCY

Producers: Gil Netter, Asher Goldstein and Michael B. Jordan  
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton  
Screenplay: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham  
Cast: Michael B. Jordan. Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Karen Kendrick  
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Grade:  B

This is the sort of true-life story that we have seen before, on both the big screen and the small.  An idealistic young lawyer takes on the case of a wrongly-convicted death-row inmate and faces off against a segregationist state establishment.  It’s a formula that has succeeded before; it does so again here, even if one occasionally regrets a lack of subtlety in the telling.

“Just Mercy” is based on the story of Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville, Alabama, who was found guilty of killing an eighteen-year old white girl in 1986, despite the fact that numerous witnesses could testify that he was elsewhere at the time of the murder.  Sentenced to death, he was awaiting execution in 1988 when Bryan Stevenson, a recent Harvard Law graduate, was, with the unstinting support of a dedicated activist named Eva Ansley, establishing the Equal Justice Initiative, designed to provide representation for prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes in Alabama.  Stevenson persuaded the initially reluctant McMillian to allow him to mount an appeal, and after five years of investigation and legal maneuvering, won his exoneration.   

McMillian’s story is a chronicle of official injustice of the sort that inevitably makes one’s blood boil, and was a natural for coverage on “60 Minutes” in 1992, a segment that brought Stevenson’s fight to national attention and undoubtedly infused it with new energy—as well as striking a degree of fear into the Alabama authorities who were still intent on upholding the tainted conviction and executing the innocent man.

Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “The Glass Castle”) based the script he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham on Stevenson’s memoir, and follows the intricacies of the case fairly closely, though necessarily with some concision and simplification.  Via flashbacks we see McMillian arrested and railroaded by the local sheriff (Michael Harding), who throughout the entire process will push for the verdict to be upheld.  In the present, attention is given to Walter’s devoted wife Minnie (Karen Kendrick) and his intense, hot-tempered son John (C.J. LeBlanc), as well as their supportive family and friends.

An especially important plot thread focuses on Ralph Myers, the man pressured by the sheriff to identify McMillian as the killer in return for a lighter sentence.  Stevenson has a succession of interviews with the troubled man that will eventually lead to the recantation of his testimony, although even that will not prove decisive in budging segregationist judges from proceeding with McMillian’s walk to the death chamber.     

The film also offers sharply etched portraits of the other death-row inmates surrounding McMillian.  The most poignant of them is that of Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a troubled Vietnam War veteran who admits his crime—killing a woman with a bomb he set on her porch.  Guilt-ridden, he was nonetheless poorly represented, and his slow, sad procession to the electric chair as his fellow prisoners (played by, among others, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) salute him from their cells carries a real punch, especially since Morgan’s performance is so rich with nuance.

The major portion of the film, however, is the relationship that develops between Stevenson and McMillian, and Cretton is fortunate in his leads.  As the lawyer Michael B. Jordan gives a controlled, unfussy performance that shows Stevenson’s composure when when he is threatened by local police; yet one senses the anger beneath the placid surface.  It contrasts well with the more histrionic turn by Jamie Foxx as Walter.  Jordan’s is, in fact, a very generous turn, allowing Foxx to have the spotlight and supporting him in it unstintingly.  As Ansley, Brie Larson—who’s been something of a muse to Cretton, having appeared in both “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” skillfully portrays a woman who, in her own way, is as heroic as her Captain Marvel character in a very different picture. 

The rest of the cast offer uniformly solid turns, with Rafe Spall standing out as conflicted District Attorney Tom Chapman, himself an erstwhile public defender, who initially supports the state’s case against McMillian but finally breaks with the hard-liners surrounding him to support Stevenson’s motion to dismisses the charges.  Even more effective is Tim Blake Nelson’s depiction of Myers; it’s a performance of grins and twitches that undoubtedly plays to the rafters but is nevertheless a show-stopper; it also has the virtue of making Foxx’s turn, which might otherwise seem excessive, appear relatively restrained.

As paced by Cretton and edited by Nat Sanders, “Just Mercy” can feel rather slow, and at well over two hours it’s quite long for this sort of true-life legal piece.  But it’s technically solid across the board, with Sharon Seymour’s production design and Brett Pawlak’s cinematography are fine.  Joel P. West contributes a nicely unobtrusive score. One of the points made on more than one occasion in “Just Mercy” is that the locals in Monroeville are quick to recommend the museum dedicated to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by the town’s most famous resident, to outsiders like Stevenson.  It’s a bitingly ironic if, once again, unsubtle dig, reminding us that in the American south, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.