Dolittle: The 800-pound gorilla in the multiplex.
It is with deep and abiding regret that we report the passing of Robert Downey, Jr. — one of the last of his generation of trailblazers — over to the dark side. Admittedly, the transition probably took place ages ago. Dolittle is the first time in almost a dozen years (and almost a dozen pictures) that the once untouchable actor and I have spent quality time together in the same multiplex. (Does sleeping through half of The Avengers really count as a viewing?) The ensuing years have given witness to a noticeable movement away from the risk-taking original that once was and in the direction of breezy, barren comic book thrills.
The star made perfect sense, even if the director seemed an odd fit. From the normally politically-charged lens of Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Gold) comes Hollywood’s plan to cash in on the 100th birthday of children’s author Hugh Lofting’s human-ducking, animal-confabulating Victorian sawbones. Of all the stars to have taken the cash-enhancing comic book tumble down the MCU black hole of success, Downey’s avoidance of smaller pictures to justify the excess has hit the hardest. Today, the guy can’t enter a studio without special effects waiting at the gate to greet him.
Having grown up on the novels, the prospect of Downey hanging up his warrior vines long enough to play the legendary British physician and universal champion of animal rights piqued my curiosity. The miasmic universe that plays out is one that instead envisions Dr. John Dolittle (Downey) as Iron Vet, playing guardian to a galaxy of computer generated critters. What’s here leaves little for the imagination to marvel at.
The animated credit sequence magically hastens us through John’s troubling backstory. Starting on high with his dizzyingly love-based marriage to his darling Lily, life quickly nosedives in the direction of his bride’s untimely death. The impact of the loss results in John closing up shop and devoting his days to living a hermetic existence. The switch to live-action deposits us in the general vicinity of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. It’s in the woods of this fictional English village, where Dolittle resides, that we’re introduced to a father and his two sons on a hunting trip, looking to pop a deer. Pop Stubbins places a knife in the hand of his reluctant son Tommy (Harry Collett), but rather than using it to euthanize the chipmunk he’s accidentally winged, the humane lad finds his way to Dolittle Manor, where the rodent is personally placed in the doctor’s healing hands. So far, so good, but uh-oh… It was at about the same time the animals began to speak that my eyes drifted longingly towards the exit door.
The first example of special effects utilized to animate the mouths of real life animals was a series of shorts created by the Caesar of Squash-And-Stretch, Tex Avery aka the architect of Bugs Bunny. He began working on Speaking of Animals while between gigs at Warners and Metro. Avery signed 6 of the 50 shorts released by Paramount between 1941-1950. And I’d be remiss not to mention a certain horse, of course. Inspired by a talking mule named Francis, and in reruns to this day, the trick to getting Mr. Ed to “talk” was achieved by photographing the palamino’s attempts to dislodge a piece of nylon wire placed beneath his lips.
As for the eponymous specialist, for many of us, myself included, Downey joined Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy as cinema’s third and only big screen incarnation of Doctor D. Eight years after the publication of Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle saw the release of Dr. Dolittle and His Animals, a 33-minute “Silhouette Film” by German animator Lotte Reiniger. Her unique, hand cut approach to cartooning found its roots in shadow theatre. Reiniger’s “trick-table” was the grandmother of the Fleischer Bros. deep focus “table top” animation and Disney’s Multiplane camera. The clips on YouTube should act as sufficient appetite-whetter.
If I could talk to the animals, I would ask the money-hungry producers — Downey among them — just exactly who in blazes contributed the idea of a fire-breathing dragon with which the good doctor establishes contact? Talk about violating the integrity of Lofting’s original! The Pushmi-pullyu, mythical creature though it may be, was at least comprised of two parts llama. Other than in the Chinese animal hierarchy, does a dragon even qualify as an animal? And if so, would it be too much to ask that the beast’s appearance lead to something more than a mechanical fart joke?
It was hard to take for both young and old. The nine-year-old seated to my right punctuated many of Downey’s heavily-accented line readings with, “What did he say?” As for the creatures, the celebrity-voiced menagerie came through loud and clear. But apart from stale one-liners — and dare I say an anachronistic aside to Star Trek — there was seldom much thrown our way that was worth listening to. Your time would be better spent at home on the floor schooling the young ones on the art of conducting a heart-to-heart with the family pet.