HEAT VISION

'Dolittle' and When a Trailer Buries Its Best Asset

Robert Downey Jr. is the film's strongest selling point, yet he barely is given anything to do in the first look at the film.

It says something that one of the few surprising things about the first trailer for Dolittle is Robert Downey Jr.’s decision to attempt what sounds like a Welsh accent for the movie. (At least, I assume that’s intended to be a Welsh accent; it’s unclear from the little dialogue in the trailer.) Almost everything else demonstrated, at best, a series of misjudgments on behalf of those making the trailer, or — worst case scenario — little faith on behalf of the studio that Dolittle is a movie worthy of either Downey or Dolittle author Hugh Lofting’s original stories.

Almost everything about the Dolittle trailer felt unoriginal and borrowed from other movies — the opening shots of birds flying above trees could have been lifted directly from the recent remakes of either The Jungle Book or The Lion King, setting the tone for a trailer that at times feels almost purposefully structured to obscure what the actual movie is, beyond “kind of like other movies, and with Robert Downey Jr."

Seriously, for anyone unfamiliar with Dr. Doolittle, what information can actually be gleaned from that trailer? He’s a guy with lots of pets who can talk to them, but we can understand the animals too, so maybe it’s not that he’s special; maybe his animals are special. Oh, and he rides an emu and goes to sea with a gorilla who’s got to be told that it’s okay to be scared, which is probably the “perilous journey” he apparently has no choice but to embark on. Is that enough to convince anyone to go see the movie? Or is that task left entirely up to Robert Downey Jr., left at the center of the whole thing as the sole selling point of the entire enterprise?

If so, the trailer wastes Downey’s time and talents; he’s left mostly silent in what little we see of him, with more time and attention spent on the CGI animals and surroundings of the movie. We know, from his other appearances, that he can do comedy and adventure well, but such things aren’t on show in this trailer, which looks as if it’s been cut around his performance rather than cut to showcase it. How can a trailer that features the title card “ROBERT DOWNEY JR. IS” before the title make its lead feel like such an afterthought? Almost any other actor could be substituted in with the end result left almost identical, sadly. YouTube, consider that a challenge.

Still, at least we have the music, which breaks with tradition by not being a creepily slowed-down version of an old favorite but merely a generic cover version of one instead, complete with synth drums for full effect. It’s a differentiator that, honestly, makes you wish for the cliche. 

All told, the Dolittle trailer is a misfire that doesn’t, as some on social media are predicting, mean that the finished movie will be a mess. There’s so little of the feature on display in the trailer, it’s hard to tell one way or another, to be blunt. Rather, it shows a conservatism on the part of those who made the trailer, a tendency to rely on cliche and creature comforts that displays a distrust that audiences will embrace new ideas — or at least those they haven’t seen recently, as Dr. Dolittle has appeared in multiple movies in the past 50-plus years.

It’s a trailer that doesn’t just fail to sell the movie, it does almost the very opposite. Can anyone really say that they know more about Dolittle after watching? Perhaps there’s another way to think about such shorts: anti-teases, maybe.

Dolittle will be released Jan. 17, 2020. At least then people will be able to get an idea of what kind of movie it actually is.

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