Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Written by: Michael Arndt

Little_miss_sunshine_posterLate in Little Miss Sunshine there’s what could be an interesting interaction between characters played by two memorable actors: Paul Dano (as Dwayne) and Steve Carell (as Frank). Frank, a depressed-with-a-brave-face professor speaks to Dwayne, his rebellious Nietzschian nephew by telling him to embrace his suffering à la Proust. The scene, however, is emblematic of Little Miss Sunshine’s plot structure.

Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a family’s last minute road trip to ensure their seven year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) competes in a beauty pageant. The film is a road comedy. It is defined by a series of mishaps, its eccentric cast, and its protagonists spending substantial time in their whimsical vehicle. I am often intrigued by the synopses of road comedies and can see the temptation to make them. The idea of having adventures pop up as things go wrong on the road feels like the kind of thing a write could plausibly imagine happening to themself. As such, these stories provide a nice bridge between our realities and imaginations.

But the realness of road comedies are what makes them hard to ride. Their characters are physically confined by a vehicle, and this confining structure guides writers to strive (successfully or not) for dramatic and comedic burst in place of a more fluid storytelling structure.

Little Miss Sunshine has another structural limit that goes beyond the typical road comedy problem. One way road stories accumulate their quirky casts is by having them show up along the way. We see this structure successfully employed in numerous stories from “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” to The Land Before Time, to Labyrinth. Little Miss Sunshine, however, is the story of a family and, as such, all of its characters know each other (and are present) from the get go. In this way Little Miss Sunshine makes the same comedic mistake as do many animated, family-comedies. The story does not build up to its comedy, nor does it find an important narrative rhythm. Instead it throws silliness at you: “look everybody, this dad (Greg Kinnear) is a soulless motivational speaker, Dwayne hates everybody, this grandpa is a crude (Alan Arkin), LAUGH!” 

The film’s rushed-comedy also influences its emotional beats. In that scene where Frank and Dwayne bond, for instance, it doesn’t feel like an organic, built-to interaction. Instead it comes across as the script saying “look everybody, moody Dwayne is showing he can be reached: FEEL MOVED!” A similar comedy-to-heartfelt structure is employed in a scene with Olive and her Grandfather. In fairness, however, this scene comes across as a more thought out exploration of how a corrupted figure could be tender. This subtle distinction was enough to win Alan Arkin a best supporting actor Oscar, but nonetheless left me frustrated that he didn’t get another great scene going forward.

If I were to propose a fix for Little Miss Sunshine I would find a way for it to be more a first person, or protagonist-centred story: to show it through the eyes of a “normal” character, who is gradually tormented by their families difficulties. This would allow for a more flowing dramatic and comedic buildup. Perhaps that character could have been Olive’s mom (Toni Collette), though she is a bit too normal for my tastes. A better alternative protagonist could have been her brother, Frank.

Frank is not a larger than life character in the way that Dwayne, father Richard and grandpa Edwin are, but there is a case to be made that Steve Carrell should have been amongst those who received an acting nomination for the film. Frank, a middle-aged man, spends much of the movie cooped up in a passenger next to his seven-year-old niece. He is never put in a leadership position. He always looks vaguely sad, but remains a beacon of rationality. Frank is gay, something that  was far less normalized in 2006 than it is in 2020. He also, prior to the film, attempted suicide.

If Little Miss Sunshine has a theme, its about the difference between how eccentrics-and-outsiders are perceived versus who they are. Kinnear, Dano and Arkin play characters who we as viewers can guiltlessly ridicule; they are parodies, they were written to be laughed at. Real life outsiders, however, are more like Carrell’s character: marginalized not because they storm out into the world and ask for it, but because they have been subject to complex webs of trauma.

While Little Miss Sunshine is not Frank’s srtory, it is sort of the story of the other character that’s as three-dimensional as he is. Olive is the film’s best written character (and Breslin joined Arkin as an Oscar-nominee). She is “normal” and “likeable,” but she also has personality and struggles. And while Olive is brought in and out of focus for much of the film’s run time, she is the star of its conclusion.

The film’s third act sees the family finally arriving at the beauty pageant. The pageant is of course easy fodder for satire. Some reviewers might view this satire as too little too late, but then the film is hit with a late, dramatic twist. While I can’t describe the twist without spoiling the movie, it is yet another good illustration of the film’s theme. The twist re-establishes the family as outsiders, but it finally does so in a way that is comedically and emotionally resonant. While I don’t know how self-aware Little Miss Sunshine is of its early limits, the ending serves as an effective rebuttal of those flaws. True comedy and true emotional resonance don’t come through canned lines and personas; they come through subversive acts of rebellion and solidarity.

There are many reasons one can like a movie. Sometimes stunning cinematography, sets and costumes are enough. Sometimes it is because the movie makes a unique point or a few solid jokes. In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, I assert that the film is memorable because its saves itself from itself. Its script is a lesson in both how to and how not to tell a story. That’s not a combination you’re going to come by too often.

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Directed by: Mike Newell

Written by: Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal

MonalisasmileA plucky individual defies expectations and sets out to challenge a social inequality. Their mission is spelled out for viewers, particularly in a few rhetorically dramatic scenes.

That vague description speaks to the nature of numerous Oscar-bait films, as well as one film in particular: Mona Lisa Smile. That film is the story of Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), an art history instructor who arrives at Wellesley (an all-women’s small liberal arts) College in 1954 and instantly gets off on the wrong foot.

I mention Mona Lisa Smile’s Oscar-baityness, because it is a quality that can put off viewers just as easily as it seduces award-nominators. I, for one, often find that Oscar-bait films are so expository in stating their sociopolitical theses, that they lose their cinematic magic. I do not feel like I am watching characters engaged in dramas, but mere actors reenacting mundane essays. Mona Lisa Smile is indeed a mundane essay. But unlike the worst baity films, it doesn’t simply try to heartwarm via its messaging. Instead, and rather effectively, Mona Lisa Smile centres itself around its characters.

Katherine Watson’s story revolves around her being a modernizing rebel. She’s an unmarried woman with an education and career, who admires the works of non-realist painters like Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock. But, interestingly, she does not start the film as an outright rebel. Watson only asserts her interest in modern art when, in her first (traditional) lecture, her precocious students overwhelm her by encyclopedically naming everything on her slides and essentially asserting that she is not smart enough to teach them.

From a twenty-first century perspective this is a fascinating scene. I’m used to a college-experience where numerous students avoid doing their readings altogether, let alone come to classes with the entirety of their texts memorized. Frustratingly, the academic strength of Watson’s students is never directly referenced again. Instead it is used: a) as a springboard for Watson to introduce modern-artists that force her students to think rather than memorize and b) as an ironic contrast to the fact that many Wellesley students would simply become housewives after graduating, instead of putting their hyper-academic-strength to work.

The film goes on to explore Watson’s attempt to win over her students, four of whom: Betty, Joan, Connie and Giselle (Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Ginnifer Goodwin and Maggie Gyllenhaal) become the film’s secondary protagonists. The film’s ambitious commitment to telling numerous stories keeps it compelling and makes its conclusion truly touching. It is also, however, the culprit behind the film’s baity feel.   In order to advance the plot, the film quickly rejects the implications of that first class: that all of Watson’s students are precocious and hard to reach. Joan, and Connie are portrayed as kind souls who quickly embrace Watson’s methods, while the sexually-liberated Giselle has even more reason to do so. While all of these characters have touching scenes (the comparatively low stakes of Connie’s subplot, I would argue, are particular essential to the film’s success), there is a chance some viewers will find their scenes to be to feel-good and not sufficiently organic.

Mona Lisa Smile focuses on a part of sexism’s history that is specific enough that it will prove new to many viewers: the idea that, in the 1950s, even  elite colleges pushed women towards traditional gender roles. At times, the pacing of this exploration is questionable. In an attempt to add nuance to its story, the film’s plot forces Katherine to accept (eg in a scene where is lectured about it by her boyfriend) that one of her students genuinely wants to be a housewife. While I don’t reject the premise that some women might prefer household work to having a career, the film’s simplistic both-sides-ism ignores that it is possible for an individual to claim they are making a free choice, even as their freedom is constrained by coercive social norms.

But as I’ve said before, Mona Lisa Smile manages to make up in character work, for some of its shortcomings in political analysis. The film’s “antagonist” is the soon-to-be-married Betty, who uses her connections and position in the student press to advocate for social-conservatism. Betty’s portrayal is illustrative of the fact that socially-conservative ideas aren’t just maintained by unthinking stooges, but also by troubled intellectuals.

The actual Mona Lisa’s smile is not something an ordinary viewer would notice. Its uniqueness is something non-art-historians have to be taught to see. Mona Lisa Smile is not as subtle as Mona Lisa’s smile. Its celebration of rebellious women academics is plain as day. Then again, maybe there’s more to the movie than its thesis. Perhaps there is a subtler smile between its lines.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Directed by: Guillermo del Torro 

Written by: del Torro and Matthew Robbins

Crimson_Peak_theatrical_posterMonster vs man: that’s the recurring motif in Guillermo del Torro’s films. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water are set during the Spanish civil war and early-cold war respectively. Both feature literal monsters that at times can be scary, but both films make plain that their real villains are fascists and conservative-militarists respectively. Between those two films del Torro came out with Crimson Peak. Set in late 19th century America and England, the film is consistent with del Torro’s tendency to attack right-wing ideologies. This time, however, the ideology is as old-fashioned as the film’s setting. The ideology is British arastocracism. 

Crimson Peak is a mildly amusing watch in 2020, in that it shares a plot theming device with the recently released Little Women. Its protagonist, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), is a young American woman with the literary talents to impress publishers, who is nonetheless blocked from getting published by their sexism. Edith is told that a quasi-ghost story she has written might be publishable if she adds a romantic element, but she promptly dismisses the proposal as sexist.

Edith’s sense of direction is promptly complicated by the arrival of  Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston),  an English aristocrat, who hopes that Edith’s father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) will invest in his clay mining technology. While Edith takes a liking to Thomas, her father is quick to quell his ambitions. He refuses to offer him money arguing that Thomas is a lazy son of privilege, whereas he (Cushing) has earned his wealth.

Despite having a constant air of horror, and some memorable bursts of color, Crimson Peak struck me as a bit underwhelming for much of its middle. Carter’s telling off of Thomas seemed to settle the film’s moral message once and for all (a message conveyed, unfortunately, from an uncritical-capitalist perspective). Another key point, established a bit too early in the script for my taste, is that Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is morbid to say the least. Lucille is established in a scene in wish she glibly tells Edith about the death of butterflies, all the while a close-up depicts a dying butterfly being ripped apart by ants. In short, much of Crimson Peak is spent with the audience already knowing that Thomas and Lucille are corrupted by their inherited positions, and that Lucille may be particularly sinister. Subsequently, the audience is left with the dull experience of waiting for these apparent truths to explicitly reveal themselves and add up to something.

Luckily, there is more to Crimson Peak than meets the eye. There is some element of twist in the film’s third act and the film ends up making somewhat unpredictable observations about both aristocracy and the plasticity of love stories. Ultimately Crimson Peak proved a memorable movie, but the memorable was too little, too late to render the work overall entertaining. One weakness, I suppose, is that the film lacked del Torro’s signature (literal) monsters: they’re there, but not frequently, and certainly not to the degree necessary to register as characters. The film’s problems, however, go beyond the absence of charismatic monsters. Its real problem is the presence of blasé people.

One thing I’ve struggled with in reading English classics over the years is parsing what exactly is so attractive about their leading men. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentsworth and Mr. Rochester all struck me as just rich men whose names got repeated a lot: yet in their respective stories they count as real heartthrobs. To del Torro and Matthew Robbins’s credit, they perfectly captured this dynamic in Thomas Sharpe. The character may be the one who pushes Edith away from her intellectualism-over-love lifestyle, but nothing he does on screen really rises above the standard of blandness.

Thomas’s blandness is to blame for the arguable overwriting of his sinister sister (his lack of charisma had to be made up for somewhere). It is also to blame for why the film’s middle feels lacking. Most importantly, however, it is what prevents the film’s twist from truly tying the work together. Thomas proves a complicated character, and the subject of what is perhaps del Torro’s most tragic and nuanced exploration of reactionary power structures. Crimson Peak’s structure ,unfortunately, makes his character development seem less like an arc and more like a list of bullet points; a list that’s quite repetitive prior to its conclusion.

While Pan’s Labyrinth spoke to an evil characterized by an acting body: a military force, Crimson Peak went for a target that wasn’t exactly moving. In fact that is its point: that aristocrats are hauntingly trapped in the past. The disturbing stagnancy of aristocratic culture might very well make for a good cinematic theme, but one has to be careful that one’s own film doesn’t take on that stagnancy itself.

Color Out of Space (2019)

Directed by: Richard Stanley

Written by: Stanley, and Scarlett Amaris 

Based on a short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterThe person I went to see Color Out of Space with and I had very different motives for going. I was driven by my recent discovery of Nicolas Cage’s unique brand of acting, and by the film’s Diamantino-esque, indie-bizzaro  poster. My companion, by contrast, was intrigued by the film’s source material: a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Going to a film because you are eager to see a written piece re-enacted, and going because you want to seen an auteur’s provocative new work are two fundamentally different mindsets. Therefore, I may not be be able to pitch this film to Lovecraftian purists, but I can otherwise recommend Color Out of Space on the grounds that it offers a memorable, if not perfect viewing experience

Color Out of Space opens to teenager Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) casting (presumably fake) spells, in a wooded area, where she is confronted by Ward (Elliot Knight), a city water inspector. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the rest of Lavinia’s family. She has two younger brothers, one, Jack, who is quite young (Julian Hilliard), and another, Benny (Brendan Meyer), who is around her age and  is a bit of stoner. Their mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), works an intense financial job from home and was recently treated for breast cancer. Their father,  Nathan (Nicola Cage), straddles the line between being folksy and a leader as he champions the family’s new experimental and rural lifestyle.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review using the term “thorough horror,.” It is one I coined to refer jointly to It: Chapter One, mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. All three films appealed to me because they were not simply about a central terror, but rather built universes rife with the scary and strange (ie their horror was thorough).

I lost my appetite for thorough horror, when I went to see Ari Aster’s Hereditary. While widely lauded by indie film fans, for me Hereditary was a work that had subjected its “horror” too much to its “thoroughness.” Its plot felt more like a collection of horror motifs than an actual horror story.

In its first, or perhaps first two, acts Color Out of Space has the same problem as Hereditary. Numerous potentially off-putting things take place:  Ward’s concern about undrinkable water, Savinia’s magic, and the warnings of Ezra the squatter-stoner (Tommy Chong). This perilous air  is further built upon by the film’s other eccentricities e.g. Nicolas Cage’s occasional cartoonish acting. All of this latent-horror, however, feels like wasted potential in much of the film’s early moments. We are reminded again and again that something might be off, but the script never allows us to get too excited about the specifics.

One of the film’s structural problems is its failure to develop one character as its protagonist. Is the soft-spoken and concerned Ward, for instance, supposed to be the hero? He could could be, but he’s not around that often, and his personality is kind of bland. What about Lavinia? Well, she has a strong first scene, but then she melts into the film’s fabric as a normal kid with a slightly eccentric hobby. Nathan? Well, he’s the most charismatic character (and played by the most famous actor), and his ideas and doubts might make him protagonist material, but like Ward and Lavinia, he oscillates in out of relevance.

Color Out of Space, however, has an ultimate twist that makes up for its early “mistakes.” While the film’s story may feel like it centres around the overly vague plot-goal of “descent into madness,” I believe its resolution becomes more satisfying if one catches the little bit of explicit moralizing the film offers. H.P. Lovecraft was famous for being a solitary figure. And to this day his stories of the “strange” offer a world for the lonely to cling onto. While at times Color Out of Space is rendered dull by the realism of its relationships (yes, it is possible to apply that word to this movie of pink meteorites and troublesome alpacas), it is nonetheless a work about eccentric, troubled and isolated protagonists. And when such protagonists are given the choice between seeking the acceptance of a mediocre society and leaning into the outright terror of their strangeness, their choice may surprise you.

Not all of Lovecraft is timeless; his racist side has recently been the subject of public discourse. In Stanley’s adaptation, however, Ward is portrayed by a black actor. While Ward never fully understands the ways of the outsider Gardner family, he treats them with more empathy than his fellow townsfolk. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but I read the Ward character as a way of drawing a bridge (albeit an opaque, incomplete one) between Lovecraftian social-outsiders, and those rendered outsiders in other senses of the word. No one can truly crack the mystery of the Gardners, but at least Ward can position himself to be the detective.

Color Out of Space is a film that has great potential to frustrate. Perhaps its modernness and occasional bursts of comedy will alienate Lovecraftian purists, while its early-lack of direction will alienate casual film goers. I’ve heard it said that Lovecraft’s original story might be unadaptable, since the source text is about an indescribable color with a vast scope of power. The abstraction of this idea is indeed a hard one to convey in the cinematic format, but I think Stanley pulled it off. Color Out of Space takes a story about a bizarre phenomenon and echoes that bizarreness in its narrative structure. At first you may expect Color Out of Space to be about characters, but it’s not: it’s more the story of a collective. If you want you could be more abstract in your description. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is literally about an alien color, but if you went there with your description, I wouldn’t say you were wrong.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

Written and directed by: Xavier Dolan 

IKilledMyMotherCoverFrom the bawdy world of Dazed and Confused to the pseudo-innocence of  Peggy Sue Got Married, there’s a common feel to high-school movies. The characters cruise around in their cars and live in a world of their own. Adults are often present and influential, but there is never any doubt that the central universe is that of the adolescents.

Then-debuting-auteur Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother, is instantly seductive for a number of reasons. For one, in true arthouse fashion, it finds beauty in the mundane, swinging by school and house walls in its scenes, and accenting colorful objects in its stills. It also employs the ever enjoyable tropes of its protagonist,Hubert (Dolan), smoking and philosophizing in black and white.

The film’s chief appeal, however, is its effective framing of what it means to be an adolescent. The typical, free-running, high school movie protagonist is depicted as existing in the world as an adult, even as they still have the mind of a child. Hubert, by contrast, has quite the reflective mind, but, like many sixteen year-olds, he has nothing resembling an adult’s freedom. 

The film’s title refers to a subtler event that takes place early in its runtime. Overall, the story explores Hubert’s relationship to his mother (Anne Dorval). The relationship is obviously not a pleasant one, but its true nature is never quite made clear. Hubert is prone to bursts of yelling, whereas his mother is always unsettlingly calm. While audiences are never forced to doubt Hubert’s account of events (that his mother is unavailable, inconsistent and manipulative), we are encouraged not to trust them either. 

This ambiguity means that I Killed My Mother captures a nuance about parent-child relationships that many films often miss. As a smart, almost adult, Hubert is on the one hand, of course capable of intellectually and morally criticizing his mother’s methods. But on the other hand, the parent-child relationship is necessarily one of trust in the elder. Despite Hubert’s threats that he will cut off ties with his mother, viewers will understand that this cannot be true. 

While much of the conflict between Hubert and his mother is rooted either in specific, small instances or in their backstory, Hubert’s semi-closeted gayness is also an important dynamic in the relationship. Is Hubert’s mother homophobic, and to what degree? I Killed My Mother intentionally underexplores the question, because what matters is not whether the answer to question is yes, but simply that the spectre of the issue is alive in Hubert’s angsty conscience. 

I Killed My Mother is great for what it is not. It presents its titular teenager as a teenager, not an adult. It presents him as being able to be critical of his parents, without giving into the Hollywood trope of presenting children (much younger than Hubert) of being in a position to effectively lecture their parents on obvious moral shortcomings. But I Killed My Mother is also great for what it is: for its beautiful shots be they of a greasy spoon with a “special aura”, or paint-drenched romance; and its plot structure, which seems to come to resolution once and then finds satisfying drama again. Hubert’s relationship with his mother is hopefully not one shared by many, but I suspect the little bit of relatable truth in it will prove a present surprise for viewers of all kinds. 

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola 

Written by: Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner

Peggy_Sue_Got_MarriedPerhaps you’ve seen the 2004 film Thirteen Going on Thirty. It’s a comedy about a girl who strives for acceptance from her school’s popular clique, but cruelly pushes away her geeky best friend in the process. Magic happens, she’s suddenly a thirty-year old woman, and she’s made to learn life lessons in the process. For me at least, its an example of a film rooted in a fairly fun gimmick, that doesn’t know how to overcome its predictability.

Before Thirteen Going on Thirty, however there was 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married. The film introduces Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) who attends her high school’s 25-year reunion while distraught over her impending divorce from Charlie (Nicolas Cage). Something about her mental state and location transports her back to the past. While Thirteen Going on Thirty derives its gags from a thirteen-year-old being in a thirty-year-old’s body, Peggy Sue Got Married goes for forty-three year old in a seventeen-year-old’s body. 

There’s another key difference between the two films, however. While Thirteen Going on Thirty uses two actors for the protagonist’s two ages, Peggy Sue Got Married sticks with Kathleen Turner. This is a choice that aligns the audience’s experience with that of Peggy Sue’s: at first it doesn’t quite make sense what’s going on, but gradually it become clear that she has gone back to another time, and appears, to the other characters, to be younger than she is.

While Thirteen Going on Thirty may have slightly more name recognition for those of my generation, I suspect Peggy Sue has the edge in terms of staying power. While both films traffic in clichés: jocks, popular girls and nerds, Peggy Sue’s characters are real enough to transcend their archetypes. While both films use age-changes to teach their protagonist’s a lesson, Peggy Sue does not start her movie as someone with an obvious moral flaw (ie denouncing your best friend for being uncool). Rather, she is someone who has gone through the understandable pain of a divorce and marital infidelity. The lesson she learns is not the simple idea of “be nice to those who are nice,” but is instead specific to her character’s situation.

Admittedly a significant part of Peggy Sue’s appeal, in addition to fifties nostalgia, is the presence of young Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey (the pair were in their early twenties). Consistent with the film’s style, the pair play both their teenaged and middle-aged selves. Unlike Peggy Sue, however, their characters’ appearances in the two different time periods are made to reflect their supposed ages.  While Carrey is largely a funny-faced side-figure, Cage’s performance is a definitive part of the film’s nuance. In the film’s stereotype-filled universe, Cage’s character is meant to be understood as a bad-boy: more on the jock then nerd end of the spectrum. But the deeper reality of his character subverts the presentation and plays a key roll in Peggy Sue’s own character arc.

Focusing on Cage’s performance may not be the most conventional approach to understanding Peggy Sue Got Married. Indeed, Cage’s acting style almost got him fired from the film by his uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola. But regardless of what the film’s writer or director intended, I maintain that focusing on Charlie is the best way to appreciate Peggy Sue Got Married going forward. Peggy Sue  is a gimmicky, predictable movie, but there are a lot of gimmicky, predictable movies out there. Peggy Sue‘s quirk and character depth allow it to break the very mould that it fits so well. Thirteen Going on Thirty tells audiences what they know to be true about being grown up, but Peggy Sue Got Married reminds us of what we forgot about getting there. 

Dolittle (2019)

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan 

Written by: Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand

Dolittle_(2020_film_poster)I keep finding myself going to films that the critics don’t want me to see. First I saw the beloved Cats  and this time I went for Dolittle, with its even lower, 15% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike with Cats, I did not go into Dolittle wanting/kind-of-believing the critics would be drastically wrong: I just didn’t want to give up on the idea that Iron Man talking to animals would be a good time. 

While Dr. Dolittle has his origins in a now century-old book series, my knowledge of the character comes solely from Eddie Murphy movies that I watched too long ago to remember. For those in a similar position, this new iteration of Dolittle offers a reasonably different viewing experience. Unlike Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr.’s Dolittle is not a contemporary, American doctor, but an eccentric, Victorian Welshman (and whether you like the performance or not, its clear at least that Downey Jr made a point of not being a Tony Stark-clone). While this may not be an exciting decision for those familiar with the Dolittle novels or Rex Harrison’s 1967 portrayal, the Victorianness of Dolittle undoubtedly provides for a different sensory experience than that of Murphy’s comedy. Dolittle’s story takes him from his charming, yet under-maintained household, to Buckingham palace and then to the high seas. While the story is not a satire in the literal sense of the word (unless I’m missing something), it does brim with parodic energy. 

It is easy to see why critics don’t care for Dolittle. For one, the story is structured around the forced-heart-warmingness of a boy (Harry Collett) discovering Dolittle, and, at ridiculous speed learning, the man’s skill of talking to animals, and inspiring him to come out of retirement. In addition to this thematic genericness, the film also banks on the idea of having comedic characters (Dolittle’s animal gang), that are not well developed, but instead have one-gag personalities that occasionally lend themselves to crudeness. While the celebrity (Emma Thompson, John Cena, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Jason Mantzoukas,  Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard) voiced animals are a clear example of Hollywood trying to cut corners to get to humor, there’s nonetheless a visual beauty to the animals’ photorealistic animation, within the context of Dolittle’s historic, seaside world. Just as real-life puppies don’t need comedic talent to be endlessly entertaining, you can enjoy the fun of seeing an ostrich and polar bear manning a ship, even if their personalities don’t quite resonate with you. Furthermore, I for one found the way in which the quasi-evil tiger was presented was reasonably unique.

There’s no denying Dolittle’s creative  imits, but its particularly bad reputation is not justified. That 15% score is a product of a) how critics seem to have a weird obsession with exaggerating their dislike for “stinkers” and b) Rotten Tomatoes’ binary Fresh/Rotten system leading movies of roughly the same quality to have wildly different scores (I could easily see a film, very much like Doolittle, coming out in a few months and getting something in the 60s). Doolittle’s silliness-on-the-seas structure gives it the air, if not the quality, of films like Muppet Treasure Island. This affect is further embellished by the emergence of a celebrity-portrayed anti-hero at the film’s midpoint, and an eccentric, yet fitting twist in the third act (that some spoiler-prone critics don’t seem to understand is meant to be a surprise). One can debate how much imagination went into Dolittle, but for those wishing to have their own imaginations stimulated: those wishing to travel back in time, with colorful animal sidekicks it is undoubtedly a charming romp.