MOVIE REVIEW: Dolittle

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 41 minutes

If someone had told me beforehand that this movie was essentially a kid-friendly combination of the Uncharted video game series mixed with “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where the human companions were animals and there’s a lot less combat, my teenagers wouldn’t have had to beg me to take them. That is to say, it turns out “Dolittle”, Robert Downey Jr.’s first post-MCU headliner, is actually a lot of fun and right in this adventure lover’s wheelhouse.

As much as “Dolittle” follows the titular doctor (Downey Jr.), who is a sort of super veterinarian that can communicate with animals by speaking their language, it equally is about a young boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) who stumbles upon Dolittle’s overgrown estate in need of emergency animal medical support. Stubbins was out hunting with his uncle and cousin, and we quickly learn that he’s much too soft-hearted toward the cute woodland critters, which eventually makes it easy for he and Dr. Dolittle to relate. Dolittle has been a recluse up until their meeting, avoiding contact with humanity as he endlessly grieves over the loss of his wife. From there a young emissary of the Queen of England arrives, beckoning him to Buckingham Palace. The Queen has fallen ill and needs Dolittle’s help. Up until this point, the story feels pretty generic and uninteresting, but upon learning that the necessary cure lies in a magical fruit on a mythical undiscovered island that Dolittle’s wife died while searching for, the excitement rises considerably. 

The bulk of the film then plays out like a traditional adventure tale, with some highlights being a thrilling chase at-sea, the infiltration of an island of outlaws, and an ever-present over-the-top villainous rival determined to stop Dolittle and steal his praise. Along the way Dolittle must overcome his fear of opening up to others while Stubbins gets many (often amusing) life-changing lessons and discovers a passion for working with the animals. And it’s understandable why, because Dolittle’s animal friends are silly, sweet, and always entertaining.  Voicework by some big Hollywood stars is mostly a delight, with Kumail Nanjiani’s Plimpton the Emu, John Cena’s Yoshi the Polar Bear, and Ralph Fiennes’ Barry the Tiger being particular standouts. 

That’s not to say that everything comes up roses in this newest adaptation of the classic American children’s book. Downey Jr. chooses to use an odd, distracting accent and plays the character with an eccentricity that reminds of Captain Jack Sparrow. The animal banter is mostly great but there are definitely some dud jokes, too. And the CGI leaves a lot to be desired, getting increasingly more noticeably bad the more action that is taking place.

Still, even though it may not be particularly memorable, “Dolittle” ends up being a hilarious and wholesome mythical adventure that is fun for the entire family. Talking animals will always be a hit with kids and the added elements of high seas adventure and pirate-like action combined with the search for a magical item will keep teens and adults interested as well. Throw in some lovely relationship-building and a big dose of hope, and you’ve got a great option for a weekend family theater outing.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Cats

Debuting in 1982, CATS is the fourth longest-running musical on Broadway and has amassed millions of devoted fans worldwide. It was only a matter of time until someone decided to tackle the challenge of bringing the innovative fourth-wall-breaking stage musical to film, and that crazy person is Tom Hooper, directing his second musical adaptation after 2012’s “Les Misérables”. Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot, the story of “Cats” is a selection of poems put into song and it is notoriously hard to follow. Eliot was known for his fanciful made-up words and names, so keeping everything about this unique world and the characters living in it straight is certainly difficult the first time through. 

The plot is fairly simple, yet at the same time utterly confusing. Over the course of a single night, a tribe of cats called the Jellicles make what is known as “the Jellicle choice” and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. So basically, all of the cats are anxious to die, go to Heaven, and be reborn again… dark. The Jellicles consist of an ensemble cast portraying cats of various personalities, all of whom are likely to break into song and dance, of course. The audience is first introduced to Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a new arrival, and through her POV the first half of the film revolves around introducing members of the tribe who explain how competition to be “the Jellicle choice” goes. There is a villain, Macavity (Idris Elba), who wishes to ascend to the Heavyside Layer at any cost, and he’ll gladly play dirty to get there. Elba’s role is expanded from that of the musical and he mostly satisfies despite going way over the top in a few scenes, but the animation used for his “magic” is laughably bad. In the second half of the film, several cats audition to be “the Jellicle choice” in front of the cats and Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), the elder and decision-maker of the tribe. This half also provides much more time with Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), the outcast cat, who is the emotional center of the story and sings the musical’s most well-known and powerful ballad, “Memory”. Dench’s performance as Old Deuteronomy is great and a nice connection to the stage version, where she once played Grizabella on Broadway. Hudson meanwhile steals the show, belting out “Memory” as powerfully and beautifully as it’s ever been sung before.

The majority of the film flows like most musicals do, from one extravagantly choreographed number to the next. Much ado has been made about the CGI fur and bodysuits the actors wear, and visually the film definitely leans on the creepy side. Even the mice and cockroaches have tiny human faces, truly the stuff of nightmares. But for all its wackiness, visual absurdity, and strange movement, most of the film was still a joyful experience and certainly one that you can’t take your eyes off. The songs turned out great, with rock stars like Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift providing memorable numbers, and veteran actors like James Corden, Sir Ian McKellen, Ray Winstone, and Rebel Wilson all infusing their cat with loads of personality.

“Cats” may be full of weird, but its heart is shown in numbers like “Memory”, “Beautiful Ghosts”, and “Mr. Mistoffelees”, and the finale of “The Ad-Dressing of Cats” is always a fan favorite that will have feline lovers heading home to hug their kitty companions. Hooper’s version of the story may be an ambitious mess with spurts of visual horror, but “Cats” is still a crowd-pleasing treat that evokes laughter, joy, heartache, and a rousing desire to sing at the top of your lungs.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Spies in Disguise

Based on Lucas Martell’s 2009 short film “Pigeon: Impossible”, in which a pigeon briefly becomes a spy and almost sets off nuclear war, “Spies in Disguise” remixes the story by having a spy become a pigeon instead. The premise is nonsensical and silly, of course, but that’s not a criticism. Early on we meet Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a young inventor with a passion for creating non-violent gadgets and a dream of helping to save the world, who is written off by most who meet him as “too weird”. Walter eventually grows up to work for a super-spy organization of which its star operative is none other than the smooth-talking, ultra-fly Sterling… Lance Sterling (Will Smith). After Sterling is framed by a mysterious villain for stealing a dangerous piece of tech, he is forced to go on the run from Internal Affairs agent Marcy (Rashida Jones) and her sense-focused investigative team of Eyes (Karen Gillan) and Ears (DJ Khaled). This leads to a team-up with Walter and an accidental transformation into a pigeon. Yes, it’s ridiculous. But also, it absolutely works! 

“Spies in Disguise” makes no apologies for referencing the spy films we all know and love. In fact, its narrative emphasizes Walter’s journey as much as Sterling’s, giving it a balance that most live-action star-driven franchises don’t have. Imagine a movie that focuses on the career goals of Bond’s research specialist Q, and allows him to be present in James’ adventure and necessary to the plot instead of just a behind-the-scenes supplier of cool toys, and you’ll have an idea of the dynamic “Spies in Disguise” operates with. Walter believes in teamwork and has an emotional backstory that is easy to empathize with, but his pacifist views are in direct conflict with Sterling’s more aggressive, pro-violence, fight fire with fire and always fly solo methodology. It’s a wonderful theme to explore within this animated world and the relationship between the two isn’t just fun and exciting, it’s quite touching as well. 

The evil cyborg villain, Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), doesn’t have a lot of screen time but is perfectly voiced. Mendelsohn has a way of sounding cleverly sinister like few actors can. His motives are not revealed early on and one thing that sets “Spies in Disguise” apart from typical kid-friendly animation is just how evil Killian can be. The tech he steals is an assassin drone and several murders are very clearly committed on screen. His menacing nature makes him feel like a legit threat and not the bumbling idiot or goofy bad guy that you might expect. 

Another area where “Spies in Disguise” separates itself from other PG films is in its writing, which is very funny but definitely skews more toward teenage sensibility than that of younger children. There is even a “50 Shades of Grey” joke that is just as hilarious as it is surprising. The film is still great for all ages, however, with slick animated action set pieces set to a hot soundtrack, an abundance of cool spy tech, and plenty of bird-related shenanigans while Sterling is a pigeon. 

It might sound shocking, but “Spies in Disguise” takes advantage of the charisma and swagger that Will Smith brings in a way that few films this decade have. Holland is the perfect sweet, geeky companion and going on this adventure with them is a purely joyful experience. It’s hard to imagine a better blend of silly children’s animation with the genre-defining elements of spy films that fans love. The story sets up perfectly for sequels and I, for one, am absolutely here for it. Bring on more avian hijinks. #TeamWeird all the way!

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 204: Miracle on 34th Street

This year’s Christmas movie conversation takes us all the way back to 1947, giving us the chance to discuss faith, its impact on lives, and what it looks like when examined in a court of public opinion.

Miracle on 34th Street Review – 00:01:40

The Connecting Point – 0:57:50

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MOVIE REVIEW: Frozen II

“Frozen” grew up.

If there’s one central point to be made about “Frozen 2,” it’s that everything about the film feels more mature in some way. Thematically, it deals with tougher relationship challenges as Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, now happily enjoying life with their friends in Arendelle, risk disruption of their peaceful lives to venture off into the unknown enchanted forest on a quest to discover the origins of Elsa’s powers and potentially learn more about their deceased parents. Change is a constant threat throughout this darker story, and all of the primary characters must wrestle with what that means for them both individually and with regard to the relationships they value. The drama is heavier, the stakes are higher, and Olaf uses self-aware humor to pose some pretty fun questions for viewers to consider. It really seems as if Disney knows their target audience of kids has aged up by 6 years and is now ready to handle a little more emotional weight, while also being sure to allow adults the opportunity to engage a little more this time around. It’s a bold choice, reminiscent of how the House of Mouse handled its “Wreck-it Ralph” sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet”.

The music also feels slightly more aimed at older kids and adults. The songs are a little more Broadway and a little less pop this time around but are no less singable. One song in particular midway through the film, an 80’s rock ballad solo by Kristoff that is shot like a music video from that era, is sure to leave audience members in stitches and is easily among the film’s most memorable scenes. And then there’s the new “Let it Go”, the anthem-like “Into the Unknown” which your kids will be singing and listening to non-stop for the next few months. While it’s not quite as catchy or memeable as the aforementioned track, it’s still likely to be in heavy radio play rotation just like its predecessor.

Another aspect of the film that has definitely gotten better with age is the animation. As should be expected, everything is more crisp and bright than before, and details on the new costumes really stand out. There are a few different mesmerizing sequences of magic being put to use, as well, that easily rival or improve upon anything in “Frozen”. This is simply a gorgeous film to look at, and even if other faults are found, your eyes can’t help but enjoy themselves.

I’m not quite ready to say “Frozen 2” is better than the original after only one viewing, but the feeling I had while watching it was similar, and I think it comes awfully close. Time will also be needed to tell whether the entire soundtrack becomes as unforgettable as the first film’s. But on the strength of deeper themes, solid character development all-around, some fantastic humor, and a dose of that Disney magic, “Frozen 2” is a triumphant sequel to one of the animation giant’s biggest smash hits.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 186: My Neighbor Totoro

This week’s episode is all joy and smiles as we discuss a Studio Ghibli animated classic. It’s a film with innocence and purity that rarely exists, and is worth celebrating for the unique emotional response it creates in us.

 

My Neighbor Totoro Review – 0:00:55

Connecting Point – 1:13:41

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Episode 185: The Wizard of Oz

September is officially upon us, but we haven’t forgotten about August just yet and specifically the donor pick selected by our awesome Patrons. The Wizard of Oz is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, just a couple of weeks ago in fact, and we are here to show it the love it deserves. Hop on the Yellow Brick road with us as we unpack this great American classic.

The Wizard of Oz Review – 0:00:56


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MOVIE REVIEW: The Lion King (2019)

This remake of my favorite animated film of all-time was coming up against some very high expectations, and despite being only my third favorite version (behind the original and theater musical), it is nonetheless an outstanding telling of this story in its own spectacular way.


 

Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 172: Toy Story 4

We approached TOY STORY 4 with apprehension, counting ourselves among those that considered Pixar’s trilogy to be one of the best ever made and already “perfect”. In this episode, Caless Davis joins us to discuss the new end of the TOY STORY franchise. We talk through our concerns and share what impacted us about Woody and the gang’s latest chapter.

Toy Story 4 Review – 0:01:38

The Connecting Point – 1:13:22

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MOVIE REVIEW: Toy Story 4


 

Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.