At The Movies!

At The Movies!

Box office tallies, movie reviews, and more!

BOX OFFICE

March 10, 2020

1. Onward
2. The Invisible Man
3. The Way Back
4. Sonic the Hedgehog
5. The Call of the Wild
6. Emma
7. Bad Boys for Life
8. Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
9. My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising
10. 1917

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MOVIE REVIEWS

ONWARD
★★1/2

Starring the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer.  Directed by Dan Scanlon.  1hr42min.  MPAA rating: PG (for action/peril and some mild thematic elements).

A manic, moderately diverting babysitter of a Pixar movie, “Onward” does get there by the end — “there” being the place where the freneticism recedes, the main characters’ emotional setbacks and defenses crumble and the audience is encouraged, by every possible storytelling mechanism, to cry along with the teenaged brothers voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt.

The world of “Onward” has lost meaningful contact with its exotic historical past filled with dragons, dungeons, wizards and spells. Life has been gentrified and tamed. The human-like elves we meet include tender, shy Ian Lightfoot and his brash older sibling, Barley. Their father died before Ian was born. The boys and their mother, Laurel, live in the pleasantly conformist-minded town of New Mushroomton, whose residents include centaurs, merpeople, pixies and garbage-scavenging unicorns. It’s a mashup of Middle-earth, a sanitized edition of “Game of Thrones” and the role-playing wonderland of Barley’s favorite game, Quests of Yore.

For Ian’s 16th birthday, Laurel presents the boys with a pre-arranged gift: a magical spell-casting wooden staff able to bring their late father back from the dead for a single day. It works, almost: Dad returns from the waist down only, unable to see or hear but pretty slick with the dance moves. For kids whose fathers are only half-there in reality, “Onward” may register in more than one way.

The rest of the antsy plot finds Ian and Barley on a deadline hunt for a precious “Phoenix stone” (ripped off from somewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, apparently) to complete the spell. En route there are police to elude, including mom’s officer boyfriend, and a dragon to vanquish. Also there is a brief reference to a lesbian officer’s girlfriend. I mention this so as not to trigger the homophobes in the film’s potential audience, who prefer yesteryear to the more accepting, inclusive hell we’re living in now.

Does it work? It’s one busy movie, though without much variety in its rhythm or much breathing room in its perils. Director and co-writer Dan Scanlon was the chief creative force behind my least favorite Pixar feature to date, “Monsters University,” and while he’s genuinely interested in the mood swings, self-esteem challenges and everyday humiliations of young kids as they navigate through the world, the setbacks and arguments here grow wearying.

Without breaking any new ground, the animation itself certainly holds up its end of the bargain. Pratt in particular finds what laughs there are to be had with Barley, whose life revolves around his beat-up Econoline-type van named Guinevere. (“This has been the world’s longest gap year,” says his mother in passing, voiced just so by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.) Octavia Spencer gives it the sauce as a half-lion, part-scorpion, part comic relief manticore, whose inner beast is dying slowly, by degrees, in her job managing a Medieval Times-esque theme restaurant.

Is it a matter of narrative over-complication that keeps “Onward” from being better? Not really: My favorite Pixar movie, “Ratatouille,” is practically insane in its zigzags and its central premise of a rat becoming a gourmet chef. But something’s off with the dad element in “Onward.” Screenwriters Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin keep reminding us of the spell-casting deadline, and of the reason the boys are going through all this mayhem. They have to remind us, otherwise we’d forget.

Like Disney’s billion-dollar smash “Frozen,” Pixar’s “Onward” invests heavily and, in the end, smartly in a sibling relationship that’s not always easy. That part works, in the nick of time. But the storyline’s internal competition and emphasis on DreamWorks-style action sequences sell that theme short. I liked the movie all right. It’s just that “all right” shouldn’t be the goal here. By Michael Phillips, Tribune Content Agency.

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EMMA
★★★

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy. Directed by Autumn de Wilde. 2hr 9min. MPAA rating: PG (for brief partial nudity).

On the froth-to-grit Jane Austen spectrum, the new “Emma” in theaters this week falls very pleasantly in the region of the 1996 film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The latest “Emma,” marking the feature directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde, is a little edgier, driven by a more ambiguous and emotionally guarded portrayal of the blithe young matchmaker played by Anya Taylor-Joy.

No great author is foolproof in another medium. Too many things can go wrong, from errant casting to forced jollity to the wrong sort of faithfulness to the letter. But Austen has been lucky indeed, inspiring one witty, grand-hearted movie or miniseries after another. Even the pretty-good ones work in gratifying and fulfilling ways. As Austen herself wrote in “Emma,” regarding marriage prospects, luck becomes a mysterious factor in “giving attraction to what is moderate rather than to what is superior.”

Director de Wilde’s approach has no interest in the ground-level realism of the brilliantly de-glamorized “Persuasion,” released in 1995. That was at the forefront of the recent, highly welcome Austen assault on popular culture. For some, peak Austen was realized by the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth “Pride and Prejudice,” another 1995 release. “Clueless,” that sterling riff on “Emma,” likewise came out that year, as did the enormous mainstream success, Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” written by and starring Emma Thompson. In a related vein of visual swank, Joe Wright’s more recent “Pride & Prejudice” brought an endlessly swirling camera into the proceedings.

In the new “Emma,” we’re more or less in period and within conventional lines. This means eye-filling, Regency-era duds and bonnets, and the pleasurable trappings of 1815 England among the smart set. At 21, Emma is marketable in the marriage sense, but more interested in matchmaking for everyone around her. Newfound friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, expertly handling an expanded supporting role with ease) spurns the advances of a local farmer, on Emma’s advice.

Ever wonder what living in the White House is like? That’s easy: It’s weird! Life in the White House for the first family (its only permanent residents) is like a cross between…

Though her social engineering and string-pulling causes equal parts harm and good, Emma monitors the experiment involving three prospects in particular. There’s the twerpy local vicar (Josh O’Connor), bracketed by two variations on the theme of well-dressed hunk: Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Churchill (Callum Turner), one worthy, the other weaselly.

The look of this “Emma” is almost suffocatingly adorable, with various interiors photographed and staged like early 19th-century pop-up greeting cards in overbright colors. Director de Wilde works from a script by Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton, who wrote “The Luminaries.” The movie strains at the outset; the early scenes are dominated by a brisk procession of tidy, somewhat static shots, set into motion by some intrusive music and editing.

Then, rather miraculously, it starts getting better and better. The importance of Emma’s friendship with Harriet has been heightened and deepened here, thanks to Catton. The key transitional scene for Emma and Taylor-Joy arrives with the picnic at which Emma fires off a callous joke at the expense of Austen’s least socially adept and vulnerable character, the flibbertigibbet Miss Bates, played by a heartbreaking Miranda Hart. This scene is where any film version of “Emma” must take care of business, exposing Austen’s heroine as an obstacle to her best instincts as well as a complicated woman of privilege.

Also, it never hurts to have Bill Nighy in your movie. He plays Mr. Woodhouse, whose wealth and standing helps him not a bit with his perpetual dread of drafts. Like any number of other filmmakers, Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson for starters, de Wilde loves the notion of letting actors fill the frame with a crystallized reaction shot, set off in italics, capturing amusement, disdain, puzzlement, delight. As her directorial career develops, I hope de Wilde reconnects with a fluid, dynamic camera, which she has already exploited to persuasive effect in music videos for The Decemberists and her daughter Arrow’s band Starcrawler. “Emma” is her feature calling card. It’s good enough to continue Austen’s lucky streak into a new decade.
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Content Agency

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BRAHMS: THE BOY II
★1/2

Starring Katie Holmes, Owain Yeoman, Christopher Convery. Directed by William Brent Bell. 1hr 26min. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for terror and violence).

The hit 2016 “haunted doll” thriller “The Boy” put a sharp spin on a tired genre, by revealing in its last act that — spoiler alert — the title figurine, named Brahms, was actually being guarded by a creepy, masked adult, who lived in the walls of a spooky old mansion. Unfortunately, as enjoyably perverse as that twist was, it arrived too late in the picture to compensate for the preceding hour of Gothic horror cliches.

The sequel, “Brahms: The Boy II,” takes a somewhat different approach to the original’s premise. Some of these changes are for the better and some for the worse; but on the whole, the overall quality remains about the same. Like its predecessor, “The Boy II” is a fairly corny and stodgy spook-show, with a few good jolts and one genuinely creepy killer toy.

One point in the sequel’s favor: The scares come early and often. In the new film, a family of three is looking for a fresh start after a traumatic home invasion — shown in disturbing detail. The trio moves into the guest house on the estate from “The Boy.” There, the son Jude (Christopher Convery) finds Brahms and brings him into the house, demanding that mom Liza (Katie Holmes) and dad Sean (Owain Yeoman) follow the first movie’s “rules” and treat the doll like a person.

What follows is a more conventional, “Annabelle”-like devil-doll story, with Liza becoming increasingly concerned about the freaky phenomena happening around the house — nearly all of which Jude blames on Brahms. As always, the doll’s blank face and soulless eyes make even the most routine “What’s the bump?” and “Who moved that furniture?” moments moderately more spine-tingling.

Like a lot of horror sequels, “Brahms” gets too hung up on mythology, as Liza’s research into the history of her son’s new friend leads to a lot of dreary and disappointing explanations of things that don’t really need a raison d’être — including the big central shocker from “The Boy.”

The biggest issue, however, is that director William Brent Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear, the creative team behind “The Boy” and “Brahms,” don’t seem to have much ambition beyond giving the audience the willies in the most obvious ways imaginable. Early on, the film ties the family’s Brahms-related anxieties to the violent assault they suffered in the first scene, suggesting that their troubles run deep. But before long, they’re just like any other ordinary horror movie family: mother, father, son and demonically possessed plaything.
By Noel Murray, Tribune Content Agency

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HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY
★★★

Starring Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor  Directed by Cathy Yan.  1hr44min  MPAA rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material).

The best thing to come out of 2016’s much-derided DC antihero team-up “Suicide Squad” was Margot Robbie’s inspired take on Harley Quinn, the self-proclaimed “Joker’s girl” and quirky chaos clown. Robbie’s Quinn, with her colorful pigtails and baseball bat, instantly became an icon, a perennial Halloween costume, eclipsing even her lesser half, Jared Leto’s heavily tattooed Joker. But enough about him; the Joker is so 2019. 2020 is Harley Quinn’s year. And in the wake of her breakup, she’s back and better than ever with a brand-new girl gang in the brilliant, breakneck “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”

Director Cathy Yan soars with her stylish sophomore feature, which is colorful, campy and cheerfully brutal, a perfect reflection of Harley herself. Robbie, as usual, tears into the role with a wide-eyed gusto that is equally childlike and unhinged. With her Betty Boop accent, wacky wardrobe and gymnastic facility with a bat, Harley is one lovable psychopath. It’s impossible not to root for her, even as she’s reducing chemical factories to clouds of rainbow-colored smoke, gleefully dropping hordes of police officers with shotgun blasts of glitter and demolishing bad guys with roller skate high kicks to the face. Robbie makes Harley a bedeviling, beguiling antiheroine, not just any old crazy ex-girlfriend.

“Birds of Prey” is also the cinematic introduction to the other birds in the flock, the beloved comic characters Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), styled as a butt-kicking blaxploitation queen, and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious yet neurotic assassin out for vengeance. Along with renegade cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and precocious pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), this is Harley’s new girl gang, who band together against the sinister Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Although Harley typically prefers to commit crime than fight it, for these girls (and that guy), she’ll make an exception.

Christina Hodson’s script is a madcap, irreverent roller coaster ride, the story relayed in a loopy, looping, nonlinear fashion through Harley’s hyperactive storytelling style. She bounces back and forth through time, taking a few tangents to wax poetic about the beauty of a bodega bacon, egg and cheese sandwich (relatable), list each of her enemies and their grievances with her and relish in the memories of some of her best butt-kickings. She clearly sees herself as Gotham’s own “Atomic Blonde,” and the eye-popping fight choreography proves she is. The action sequences are breathtakingly balletic and bruising. If it seems like Harley could take John Wick in a fight, that’s because she can: “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski consulted on some of the fight sequences. Shot by Matthew Libatique, the action is crispy clean among all the sparkles, smoke and decaying carnival rides.

“Birds of Prey” is a circus for the senses, but the performances give the film its heart and humor. Every performer knows what movie they’re in, with Robbie’s winking, wild performance creating a safe space for experimentation. The wonderfully powerful Smollett-Bell is a breakout, but Ewan McGregor’s outlandishly campy turn as the sniveling Sionis is a hoot and a half, easily stealing the show. Yan has delivered a riotous rodeo that is “Kill Bill” meets “Coffy.” It’s a tribute to cutest, kookiest clown in the comics, and a perfect distillation of her character: sweet, sour and sassy in all the right ways. By Katie Walsh, Tribune Content Agency.

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THE RHYTHM SECTION
★★

Starring Blake Lively, Jude Law.  Directed by Reed Morano. 1hr49min  MPAA rating: R (for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use).

In the new thriller “The Rhythm Section,” Blake Lively and Sterling K. Brown share a scene in which Lively, as bullet-for-hire and perpetual wig-changer Stephanie Patrick, discusses possible employment opportunities with Brown, who plays a shadowy fixer with international connections. Our heroine’s ultimate target: a radical Islamic terrorist who may be responsible for killing her entire family aboard a jet airline attack, no survivors.

In all their scenes, Lively and Brown talk like they’re in a spy movie. You know the sound. Comically low tones, so questions sound like statements. Statements that sound like two people trying to fool the polygraph. It’s a battle of the deadpan mutterers, and the actors are highly trained in the art of portraying chameleons with plenty to hide.

“The Rhythm Section” doesn’t have much to say; it’s more about non-verbal suffering and atmosphere, and it certainly has a distinctive, ashen-toned look to show for itself. The material, equals parts Mata Hari and Jason Bourne, is another story. You could call it tried and true, or you could call it tired and false.

We’ve admired righteous super-assassins with surreally low blood pressure for a long time now. Think of it: The first Bourne film came out 18 years ago, just as America fully entered its raging, paranoid phase, and Robert Ludlam wrote his first Bourne novel a generation before that. While there have been several international female-driven film projects along these lines (“La Femme Nikita,” et al.), “The Rhythm Section” is a defiantly old-school attempt to get something new going.

Backed by the producers of the James Bond franchise, the project enjoys the advantage of a built-in fan base, although that may be the only thing about director Reed Morano’s film that speaks to straight-up enjoyment. Lively’s character, a Londoner, falls into a tailspin of grief, drugs and prostitution following the midair tragedy over the Atlantic. Trained as a cinematographer, Morano leans into the protagonist’s suffering in a way that few male directors would’ve favored.

Morano shot part of the gorgeous Beyonce “Lemonade” project, as well as many other films, including the stark, atmospheric “Frozen River.” Here she works with “Widows” and “12 Years a Slave” cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, one of the best around, to create a palette suited to a fantasy about a woman descending halfway into hell, and assassinating her way out of it. The look is miserably dank one minute and blindingly sun-baked the next (the film was shot primarily in Ireland and Spain), and you notice it. Published in 2000, Mark Burnell’s debut novel — the first of four Stephanie Patrick adventures — was engineered for the movies, built to attract a bankable actress in a globe-trotting series of assignments while changing identities, hairstyles and personae at will.

Lively proved with “The Shallows” and “47 Meters Down” that she could run a profitable genre exercise with easy authority. She’s fierce and often affecting here. I wish Burnell’s screen adaptation had found some way around Jude Law’s steely operative “molding” the grieving killing machine into his kind of woman, but the plot, as compressed here, offers no way around it. The one-man commando training camp is located in a remote part of Scotland. Throughout “The Rhythm Section” Law leaps into frame to choke, punch or wallop Lively as a series of jolly tests, often scored (egregiously) to ironic, upbeat pop tunes. At moments such as these the movie feels like the sternest possible reenactment of the old Inspector Clouseau/Cato routine from a “Pink Panther” comedy.

The title refers to what a character from Burnell’s novel (not in the movie) tells Stephanie: “Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass … Keep the rhythm section tight and the rest of the song plays itself.” Yes, and your spleen is the brass and your kidneys are the reeds and that title is just a tarted-up conceit. Delays in the film’s production resulted from an on-set injury sustained by Lively, followed by the star’s pregnancy and the ultimate birth of Lively’s third child. The movie is made well, if you’re buying what it’s selling, and if you don’t consider a story or a script as crucial to the quality of a thriller. By Michael Phillips, Tribune Content Media.

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BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

★★

Starring Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens. Directed by Adil El Arbi &Bilali Fallah.  2hr4min  MPAA rating:  R (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use).

So much has happened since Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, in that order of billing, struck gold with director Michael Bay’s feature debut “Bad Boys” (1995) and its sequel, “Bad Boys II” (2003). Presidents came and went. “Green Book” won the Oscar. Our dog turned 14.

A lot goes on in between the natural life cycle of a two-movie phenomenon from another time, and an attempt to tack on a third and get it going again, this time with Smith getting top billing and Martin second.

“Bad Boys for Life” is that attempt. While I don’t like to guess financial outcomes, this time I think the financial outcome is pretty clear and pretty rosy. Aside from the bit about Lawrence being able to beat Smith in a foot race, the movie has very few unintentional laughs. It boasts a handful of cheap intentional ones, lots and lots of automatic gunfire and bleeding, and a nutty pileup of influences, from late-period “Fast & Furious” to “Mission: Impossible” to “21 Jump Street.”

Through it all, as directed by the Moroccan-born Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, “Bad Boys for Life” may be a frantic visual blur but it’s razor-sharp thematically. Its mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make a jaded 2020 audience glad to see these guys again. The movie’s not the point. The boys are the point.

“Original” being relative, the original “Bad Boys” told the story of how Tea Leoni nearly swiped a Martin Lawrence/Will Smith vehicle away from the headliners. “Bad Boys II,” a callous low point for early 21st century studio movies, told the story of how Jackie Chan’s far superior “Police Story” managed to wreck a hillside village inhabited by poverty-stricken extras for laughs, and succeeded. This led to director Bay ripping off the “Police Story” melee for his movie. Watching the destruction, all you could think about was the meanness of the joke’s premise.

“Bad Boys for Life” finds Lawrence’s Det. Marcus Burnett a proud grandpa and an eager retiree-to-be. The script’s main joke for his character involves Marcus still finding the prospect of “quality time” from his shrewish wife (Theresa Randle) a persistent drag on his ego. Who says they don’t write decent women’s roles in stuff like this?

In fact, there are other major female roles here, and only one of them is a ruthless drug lord she-beast bruja (Kate del Castillo, bringing it). She busts out of prison; assigns her ruthless yet vaguely conflicted assassin son (Jacob Scipio) to eliminate all the Miami bigwigs who made life difficult for her and her late drug lord husband. Det. Mike Lowery heads that list.

The movie lurches back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, while the veteran Bad Boys struggle with new rules of conduct and cooperative policing, albeit policing with a delirious body count. Paola Nunez plays Rita, Lowery’s former lover and head of an elite special Miami police unit taking charge of the case involving the murdered Miami adversaries of the drug lords. But there’s all this sexual tension between Rita and Mike, at least we’re told there is. Mike mutters about the love of his life, once upon a time, which ended badly and closed him off emotionally. This figures into the plot, if you care about plot.

The movie doesn’t, and its major reveal is ridiculous bordering on insane. But “Bad Boys for Life” is the sort of shiny, energetic mess audiences won’t mind. It’s a lot less egregious than “Bad Boys II.” (Low bar.) Speaking of which: Michael Bay shows up here in a wedding sequence, making a toast. Cute cameo, destined to be lost on millions.

The chief marker of the years that have passed since 1995 can be crystallized by the visual attack of “Bad Boys” vs. this reboot. Bay’s greasy-smooth camera aesthetic has been replaced by the new directors’ frenzied, hand-held, even-quicker-cut approach. A weird amount of the action seems to be filmed at an accelerated, zazzed-up speed, when it’s not full-on body-doubling Smith and Lawrence, or digitally futzing in a supremely obvious way with the physical brawls. It’s no less tricked-up than Smith’s recent “Gemini Man” double act.

Unlike that movie, at least, this one makes time for a few trash-talk detours, and for Lawrence’s superb delivery of the phrase “thy own loins.” At one point, during a physics-defying motorcycle pursuit along nighttime Miami streets that look oddly like Atlanta, Marcus finds a huge cache of weapons in a storage compartment. The throwaway line “It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here!” got a nice juicy laugh, one that even angry white men with basements full of weapons should appreciate. And if they liked the old “Bad Boy” movies, they’ll probably like this one, too.  By Michael Phillips, Tribune Content Media

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DOOLITTLE

★1/2

Starring Robert Downey Jr, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen. Directed by Stephen Gaghan  1hr46min  MPAA rating: PG (for some action, rude humor and brief language).

The new film “Dolittle” proves there’s more than one way to spell “Dolittle,” its preferred spelling being “J-u-m-a-n-j-i.”

In what feels like a corporate panic, co-writer and director Stephen Gaghan’s franchise hopeful trades charm for noise, and wit for a climactic dragon colonoscopy (don’t ask, don’t tell). Meantime, Robert Downey Jr. offers a determined Scottish burr as a replacement for the bored silken tones of Rex Harrison, star of the 1967 musical “Doctor Dolittle,” and Eddie Murphy, headliner of the disposable non-musical 1998 remake and its 2001 sequel.

The latest “Dolittle,” like the others, owes its inspiration to Hugh Lofting, whose fanciful letters home during World War I formed the genesis of the first Dolittle book published in 1920 with the subtitle “Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts.” So many Oscar winners have lent their voices to the menagerie here, from Emma Thompson (a macaw) to Rami Malek (a gorilla). So where’s the … oh, what’s the word … fun?

Even in a realm of corporate moviemaking dependent on digital effects and green screenery, you’d hope that a project co-written and directed by the same person, in this case “Syriana” filmmaker Stephen Gaghan, might retain some semblance of personality. Along with everything worth tossing — the quaint colonialist racism, for starters — Lofting’s adventures of the animal doctor conversant in myriad mammal, aquatic, insect and aviary languages offer plenty for reinvestigation. And Downey Jr., if you haven’t noticed or couldn’t recall, is a fine actor as well as huge star.

The once and future Iron Man, however, favors a blasé, throw-it-away delivery and demeanor that can easily lapse into a form of subtle heckling. The set-up in “Dolittle,” set in the mid-19th century: After his wife and fellow explorer dies in a shipwreck, Dr. D hides away, Howard Hughes-like, in his private, zoo-like house and grounds donated by Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). Two young people coincidentally pay the doctor a visit at the same time, forcing him out of his hermit zone: a teen royal (Carmel Laniado), sent to fetch Dolittle to save the mysteriously ailing queen; and a tender local lad (Harry Collett) who has accidentally shot a squirrel and seeks emergency treatment.

The palace intrigue features Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent, mugging and skulking (they’re like a Victorian law firm, Mugging and Skulking) as the queen’s enemies. Soon enough, a newly engaged Dolittle shakes off his grief and what appears to be agoraphobia and takes off across the seas in search of a magical potion to save Her Majesty.

The problems begin and end with the script, credited to three writers. “Dolittle” turns its title character into an eccentric and wearying blur of tics, tacked onto a character who comports himself like a bullying, egocentric A-lister rather than someone who, you know, actually enjoys the company of animals. The banter enjoys the benefit of genuine comic pros doing the voices, but the zingers remain low on zing, bordering on total zinglessness. “I’ve got a front row seat to Crazy Town!” goes one bit, reminiscent of an “Ice Age” movie.

Then “Dolittle” turns into a “Jumanji” sequel, or a “Pirates of the Caribbean” knockoff, with Antonio Banderas as a Jack Sparrow-influenced adversary. I won’t go into details regarding the dragon rectal exam, except to note that Gaghan doesn’t know if he should treat this development seriously or comically. He settles for a little bit of neither. As for Downey Jr.’s dialect: It’s thick. The synchronization is never quite right, so it never seems to be human speech coming out of a specific human’s mouth. All those digital and A-list millions don’t come to much in “Dolittle,” though I did appreciate Kumail Nanjiani’s vocal flourishes as the ostrich. I wouldn’t say I prefer the clunky 1967 musical to the frenetic mechanical bull of this version.  By Michael Phillips, Tribune Content Media

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JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL

★★1/2

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Danny DeVito, Madison Iseman. Directed by Jake Kasdan. Rated PG-13. Running time: 2hr.3min.

In 2017, director Jake Kasdan rebooted the ’90s family adventure film “Jumanji” by plunking John Hughes-style teen characters into a wilderness-set video game. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” was a critical and commercial success, anchored by the charms of megastars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, and the unique pleasure of watching them all play against type. Kasdan and company (including co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) know a good formula when they see it. So the sequel, “Jumanji: The Next Level,” simply offers more and more of it: There’s more jaw-droppingly crazy video game hijinks, and especially, more stars playing personas vastly different from their own. By Katie Walsh, Tribune Content Media.