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.

I Feel Pretty (2018)

 

I_Feel_Pretty.pngI Feel Pretty, a recent release starring Amy Schumer, has not exactly been a success: to use Rotten Tomatoes’ metric, audiences and critics alike have it in the low 30s. Going into the movie I hadn’t read any reviews and would not have guessed exactly where it fell short: I figured it would be a tad too reliant on crass jokes.

 

The problem I found with the film, however, was far blander. It wasn’t bad per se: it was just incredibly generic. The film tells the story of Renee Bennett (Schumer). She works for cosmetics company Lily LeClaire in a New York basement, but takes an interest in being their secretary, a defacto modelling job in a luxurious office. Bennett, however, lacks the confidence to apply for the position until she suffers a head injury which magically causes her to see herself as beautiful.

 

This is not a bad premise. It’s also not entirely original. The film’s premise is a distant cousin of the Freaky Friday concept, and closer still to the central idea of Shallow Hal. Of course, original ideas are hard to come by, so often what makes a film great is not the originality of its bare-bones plot, but how it puts its pieces together.

 

Unfortunately, creative plot construction is not I Feel Pretty’s forte either. Most of its characters are not well developed: they simply fill niches: Bennett’s unhip friends, her nice-guy love interest, her bad-boy love interest, etc. A partial exception to this rule is her quasi-boss Avery Leclaire (Michelle Williams). Leclaire is interesting to watch only in that she’s a deeper character than she initially seems to be. This does not mean she’s even nearly-interesting enough to single-handedly save the movie

 

None of this, however, gets at what really feels like the shortcoming of I Feel Pretty. Amy Schumer broke out on the big screen with 2015’s Trainwreck. She wrote and starred in the film, playing a character named Amy. Trainwreck, like other works that star their writers, was engaging because of its vaguely fourth-wall-breaking qualities. The film features comedic appearances from John Cena and Lebron James (playing himself, a sizeable role), and an excellent dark-comedic opening. In essence, Trainwreck is not simply a story, it’s a piece of filmmaking. Trainwreck is a comedic exploration of the mind of its creator, giving it a zany liveliness that generic Hollywood films lack.  Another way to put it is that Trainwreck is not “a movie,” its an “Amy Schumer movie.”

 

Of course, Schumer did not write or direct I Feel Pretty, nor has she written any other feature film since Trainwreck. Nonetheless, the character of the film left me feeling short-changed. I went to see an Amy Schumer movie. What I saw was a romantic comedy that included Amy Schumer in its cast.

 

This is a shame. Regardless of whether she literally wrote it, I Feel Pretty could have been an “Amy Schumer movie”. As someone whose career has left her subject to body shaming, and who has struck back in part by doing modelling, Schumer had a fourth-wall-breaking relationship with the premise of the film. The script could have been rife with rye, perhaps even self-aware lines. Instead, however, Schumer plays a character who is fully immersed within the film’s universe. Granted, this may be the inevitable result of the film’s premise (her psychology being transformed by the head injury), but either way, the lack of Amy in Renee undermined the film’s comedic potential. It’s worth re-mentioning the lack of depth of Schumer’s cast mates here. Perhaps the film could have worked, despite Renee’s mental transformation, if its plot weren’t so linear. We could have been exposed to side plots and characters. Instead, we’re permanently stuck with Renee Bennett, who runs her predictable course.

 

I don’t like to write negative reviews. It just doesn’t seem like a nice thing to do. In this case, however, we’re talking about a mainstream film, and I trust that amongst all the negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes mine probably does not stand out as the coldest.

More importantly, however, this is a case where criticism can be constructive. I Feel Pretty felt uninspired. And that’s a shame, because I have no reason to think that we’ve simply run out of ideas for writing gripping, inspired romantic comedies.

Ferdinand (2017)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha. Written by: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland

Ferdinand_(film)What makes a film good or not is subjective, that’s no controversial statement. Nonetheless, when writing criticisms, rationally or not, one senses a limit to that logic. I explored this idea in my thoughts on Call Me By Your Name, a film I wasn’t thrilled to watch but nonetheless could tell was a commendable oeuvre. By contrast, while watching Ferdinand, I was wrapped in cognitive dissonance. I liked what I saw, but I had a sense I wasn’t supposed to. Indeed, an after-the-film web search showed me that that Ferdinand is widely seen as a run-of-the-mill mediocre children’s film.

Ferdinand is based on a 1937 children’s book of the same name by Munro Leaf. Leaf’s book is the story of a gentle, flower-loving bull who is mistakenly viewed as having fighting potential when he is seen jumping around in pain from a bee sting. The film does not deviate from the book per se, as it is simply a much longer, more detailed imagining of the original premise. According to Tim Brayton of Alternative Endings, there in lies the problem. The original text of Ferdinand was a classic, he says, but a “demented goat,” “a meat-processing facility that has the internal logic of a 1950s Warner cartoon,” and “three hedgehogs whose primary contribution to the plot is musical numbers” are the epitome of mediocre filler.

Aside from his failure to recognize the moderate cleverness of including a calming goat as a sidekick, I don’t disagree with Brayton. For its humor Ferdinand relied on meh-slapstick scenes, German and Scottish accents, the arbitrarily blue and purple hedgehogs, and the antics of Lupe the goat who is essentially a poor-man’s Dory. What I believe Brayton, and Vikram Murthi miss, however, is that the appeal of Ferdinand lies not in its humor, but in its plot. Both critics describe the heart of the film as its clichéd, be-yourself message. This generalization misses the obvious, that Ferdinand is a story about a bull.

Despite its cute aesthetic, Ferdinand’s opening is thoroughly morbid. The film begins in the Spanish countryside at Casa del Toro, where young bulls butt heads, not ignorant to, but certainly naïve about the horrible end they are training for (the bull fight). These morbid stakes are raised further when we discover that these young bulls live at the same venue as their fathers. The calves, particularly Ferdinand’s bully Valiente (Jack Gore, Bobby Canavale as an adult), eagerly cheer on their father’s attempts to make the bullfights, Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy, John Cena as an adult), being the exception to this rule. In his brief appearance, Ferdinand’s father (Jeremy Sisto) makes for one the of the film’s more nuanced characters. In gently explaining to his son that bulls are destined to fight, he illustrates how the film’s bulls are overwhelmingly trapped in a toxic-masculine, or at very least fatalist, culture without embodying any of said culture’s  brutish coldness.

That the bulls live with their fathers and not mothers is another interesting choice on the film’s part (in the book Ferdinand is raised by his mother). Ferdinand has always been perceived as a story that challenges traditional gender roles, since it stars a flower loving, pacifistic alpha-male. While Ferdinand the film includes somewhat prominent female characters (Lupe (Kate McKinnon), Una the hedgehog (Gina Rodriguez) and Nina, his adoptive owner (Julia Saldanha, later Lilly Day), its male-centric set-up is actually what makes its anti-patriarchal politics so effective . Rather than tempering their machismo with guidance from more level-headed and morally authoritative female characters, the bulls of Ferdinand must escape from the prison of their toxic masculinity themselves.

But, let’s go back to the importance of Ferdinand being about bulls. We have acknowledged that the film opens morbidly to a scene of bulls being raised for a bloody-sport and being brainwashed into being excited about this. We then get to know Ferdinand who realizes fighting is not for him, yet after an incident with a bee is forced back into the fighting world, despite his knowledge of the dangers that lie with it. The plots gets even darker as slaughter-houses are made part of the equation. The film’s approach to the slaughter house is not uninteresting. When one prominent character is sent away to be butchered, the other characters do nothing. While parents should rest assured that Ferdinand ultimately ends as a play-it-safe, feel-good kid’s film, it does truly force its viewers to accept the gnawing reality of the abattoir. The inside of slaughter-house, meanwhile, is presented as dark, empty, and functioning without the presence of humans. This is because part of Ferdinand’s darkness, with the partial exception of a matador, lies in its carefullness not to present humans as bad guys: the humans are simply following the rules of their society. There is unquestionably something sinister about the fact that Ferdinand and his fellow bulls are brought face to face with death, by the mundane, softspoken owner of Casa del Toro. It should also be noted that the imagery of the empty slaughter-house further enforces the film’s theme of self-imprisonment.

Ferdinand’s story may be simple, but it is one that flows naturally and compellingly. In that regard it’s worth comparing to Coco (which gets a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Ferdinand’s 71%). While Coco’s premise and aesthetic may be more inventive than Ferdinand’s, parts of its story seems forced: namely the absoluteness of Miguel’s family’s opposition to music and the sudden-emergence-of and over-the-top-explanation-for Hector’s death. Is it fair that Ferdinand is seen as mediocre because of its second-rate comedy writing, while Coco is given a pass on its rushed-plot development? Or is this perhaps an example of how our pre-conceived biases (Pixar=good, Blue Sky=mediocre) shape our viewing experiences?

This is not to say I do not have problems with how Ferdinand was written. While it surprises me that Ferdinand’s dual terrors of human disregard for animal life, and the self-imposed prison of toxic masculinity was not more universally compelling, the writing of Ferdinand’s adult character undoubtedly watered down the effectiveness of the film’s plot. Ferdinand’s one flaw is not being aware of his own size (he essentially sees himself as a puppy). Aside from that, he is kind, courageous, and most importantly very aware of the futility of bull fighting. Unlike the less anthropomorphic version of Ferdinand in Leaf’s book, the film character is not a naïve, gentle-giant, but a model citizen who teaches the other bulls to stop being self-destructively competitive and to find self-actualization outside of the bullring. Were Ferdinand less self-aware, and thus less capable of engineering an escape plan, perhaps his plights would have seemed more overwhelming and thus more striking to critics. Even this criticism, however, I must bracket with nuance. The trope of the naïve-gentle-giant is not always a bad one, but the world needs to look beyond it. Do we want to live in a world where we assume giants are only gentle because they are simple-minded (in fairness to the original Ferdinand, it’s not so much that he’s simple minded, but that’s he’s a quasi-realistic bull who’s thoughts are thus inaccessible to us)?

In short, Ferdinand is not the most inventive piece when it comes to comedy or allegory. That said, if you can bring yourself to take it literally, not as a kids comedy for humans, but a potentially-tragic epic about bulls, you might find it more affective than some of its less forgiving reviewers. Regardless of what you think of the film, you should at very least check out the book and its fascinating history.