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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. 

PLAYING WITH FIRE

Even the outtakes that accompany the final credits are unfunny in “Playing With Fire,” a family movie of the sort that gives family movies a bad name. The abysmal comedy about a by-the-book smoke jumper—an “extreme” forest firefighter—mellowed by an encounter with three orphan siblings seems particularly tasteless given the current outbreak of destructive wildfires in California.

The brawny hero, Jake “Supe” Carson, is played by John Cena, a professional wrestler who’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Dwayne Johnson as a big-screen action star. Jake, whose father was a legendary smoke jumper, presides over a small outpost where—after some recent defections—he presides over a crew of three loyal underlings, nervous Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), garrulous Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and silent giant Axe (Tyler Mane). He’s a spit-and-polish guy entirely devoted to his job, hoping to be chosen by imperious Commander Richards (Dennis Haysbert) as his successor.

In his latest heroic exploit, Jake rescues three youngsters—teen Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand) and her younger siblings Will (Christian Convery) and Zoey (Finley Rose Slater)—from a burning cabin. Informed by his superiors that he’ll have to keep the youngsters at his station until their parents can retrieve them, Jake tries to maintain discipline, but of course the kids prove too much to handle and various little disasters occur even as he’s trying to keep things running smoothly in preparation for an inspection visit from Richards.

There’s a predictable subplot in the presence of Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer), the local ecologist who shows up to demand Jake’s signature on an agreement not to use water from a nearby lake in his firefighting. In the by-the-numbers screenplay by Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman, she’s the obvious romantic interest for Jake, although it takes a long while for him to loosen up enough to make an advance.

That mellowing process, of course, is the result of his interaction with the kids, who despite all the trouble they cause are supposed to be so lovable that they bring out his paternal side. (We’re also meant to laugh at their playing not so much with fire, but all sorts of potentially dangerous things, like nail guns.) The process is accelerated when he finds out that they’re orphans who ran away when they were about to be separated by CPS. What follows—after a supposedly exciting sequence in which the kids, threatened with CPS intervention, attempt an escape, giving Jake another opportunity to show his mettle—is predictable, in terms of the impression he makes on both Hicks and Richards.

“Playing With Fire” was made in connection with Nickelodeon, the kids’ cable network with which Cena has developed a relationship, and it plays like three of Nick’s more uninspired live-action series string together. The script is awful, with the jokes and visual gags falling flat, especially as directed with a heavy hand by Andy Fickman and edited with a jerky stop-and-start rhythm by Eisabet Ronaldsdóttir, and the production is glossily second-rate, with cinematography by Dean Semler that’s pedestrian at best.

And what of the cast? Cena manages the action stuff and a plethora of slapstick pratfalls well enough—the legacy of his time in the ring, no doubt—but he’s mostly stiff and halting in his delivery of dialogue (most of it bad anyway). By contrast Key and Leguizamo play frantic in an effort to wring some laughs from the dreadful material they’re given (a running joke about Rodrigo’s habit of coming up with bad quotations is especially lame); the result is embarrassing for them both. Greer and Haysbert are wasted in stock parts, while the children—who are supposed to be endearing—mostly register as irritating.

Rather than plunking down your money to see it in a theatre, you’d be better off waiting to see “Playing With Fire” when it arrives on Nickelodeon—which it will probably do in relatively short order. Well, perhaps not better off—you’ll still have to sit through the dismally unfunny movie. But the commercials will provide some respite, and your wallet will be fuller.