In the picture

February 9, 2020

Dolittle struggles in almost every department; Spies in Disguise is mediocre but occasionally fun.


Staring: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Michael Sheen

(voices): Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, and Marion Cotillard

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Tagline: He’s just not a people person.

The folks behind the new film, Dolittle, seem to have taken its title as a literal directive. Everyone involved in the movie appears to have done as little as they possibly could while making this project. The result, disappointingly, is a film that suffers because of the incompetence with which it was handled.

The live-action/CGI hybrid revolves around the famous eccentric doctor, created by Hugh Lofting almost a century ago, who can talk to animals.

After the death of his wife, Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) has become a recluse. He lives with animals (a whole menagerie in fact, voiced mostly by miscast celebrities) and refuses to interact with other people. But when two youngsters – a boy (Harry Collett) seeking aid for an injured squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson) and Queen Victoria’s (Jessie Buckley) maid (Carmel Laniado) summoning him to cure the sick monarch – arrive simultaneously at his home, he very reluctantly agrees to help them. Eventually, upon realizing that the Queen has been poisoned and must be given a fruit from a faraway land as an antidote, Dolittle and his friends set off on an adventure wherein he must outsmart his foe (Michael Sheen) and face an old rival (Antonio Banderas).

But what could have been a charming kids’ movie – and you do get the sense that somewhere in there really is the potential for a sweet children’s adventure – quickly turns instead into a disjointed, chaotic mess. Between the poor script, dodgy accents, underdeveloped characters, weird editing, and some truly bizarre plot points, especially one towards the end (spoiler: dragon proctology), Dolittle falters in so many areas.

A fairly nice animated sequence at the start of the movie, however, leaves you with the sense that a fully animated style (instead of live action drenched in poor CGI) would have been better suited for the tale. And a director who had the faintest clue of how to put together a joyous fantasy comedy would also have helped considerably. Projects like the lovely Paddington movies have shown us that talking animal films can indeed be delightful, so there’s really no excuse for the mess Stephen Gaghan has made instead.

Amidst all the chaos, there are hints of a potentially pleasant, emotional story here, but ultimately it’s just a shame that Dolittle doesn’t make the most of both its acting talent and a mindbogglingly high budget.

Spies in Disguise  1/2

Staring: (voices): Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, and Masi Oka

Directed by Troy Quane and Nick Bruno

Tagline: Super spy. Super fly.

After suffering multiple delays (seemingly at the hands of the Fox-Disney fusion), Blue Sky Studios’ Spies in Disguise has finally made its way to cinemas, but while it may not exactly have been worth the wait, it’s still fun enough to keep younger viewers occupied for an hour and a half.

The titular spy is Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith), a cocky operative who, we are told, is the world’s most awesome secret agent. After returning from a mission to recover an attack drone before it falls in the hands of terrorist mastermind Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), Sterling confronts and fires Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a young scientist with somewhat pacifistic ideals who has equipped Sterling’s suit with non-lethal weapons.

But when video footage suggests that everyone’s favourite secret agent might actually be a traitor, the beleaguered Sterling decides to seek Walter’s help, hoping a concealment invention will help him disappear. What happens instead though is that Sterling unknowingly drinks a concoction that inadvertently ends up transforming him into a pigeon. Stuck in the form of a bird until Walter can make an antidote, Sterling and his new sidekick must evade capture, chase down the villain, clear the spy’s name, and perhaps even turn him back into a human.

The film plays, in part, as a sort of James Bond knockoff – a conceit about as tired as can be – but it is neither sharp enough to be a satire nor exciting enough to work as an homage. The storyline is typical, the twists predictable. The script is in need of new ideas and more polish. The comedy is uneven; some attempts at humour work, while others, not so much. Also, for a kids’ movie, there is probably more adult humour here than you would expect.

The animation, too, isn’t particularly special, and the occasional odd character design – a pigeon with teeth and eyebrows, more disconcerting than cute – is a bit underwhelming. The characters are voiced by a supposedly star cast (because what better way to attract kids than the voice of DJ Khaled), most of whom sound distractingly like themselves.

Whereas the finest animated films by the likes of Pixar have been so impressive because of their creativity and originality, Spies in Disguise is just a transparently commercial endeavour that falls far short in comparison to the many better examples in its medium. The film does espouse a positive moral philosophy (using non-lethal force), which is commendable, even though it doesn’t seem very convincing in the context of the storyline.

Still, it’s an admirable idea that will hopefully leave children with a positive message.

All in all, this isn’t a deep or inventive adventure, but it still has enough moments of fun to entertain undemanding viewers.

Rating system: ☆Not on your life ☆ ½ If you really must waste your time ☆☆ Hardly worth the bother ☆☆ ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only ☆☆☆ Good enough for a look see ☆☆☆ ½ Recommended viewing  ☆☆☆☆ Don’t miss it  ☆☆☆☆ ½ Almost perfect ☆☆☆☆☆ Perfection

In the picture: Review on movies Dolittle, Spies in Disguise