Review, ‘Becoming,’ starring Michelle Obama

May 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michelle Obama in “Becoming” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Becoming”

Directed by Nadia Hallgren

Culture Representation: The Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” follows her on tour while promoting her 2018 memoir of the same  title, and the movie shows her interacting with racially and socially diverse groups of people during her tour stops in the U.S. and Canada.

Culture Clash: In the film, Obama addresses the hate and criticism that she and husband Barack Obama have received from critics and conservative political opponents, especially when he was president of the United States.

Culture Audience: Aside from fans of the Obamas (the most obvious audience), “Becoming” will appeal primarily to people who are curious to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like for a former first lady to headline a successful arena tour, which had never before been achieved by a first lady of the United States.

Marian Shields Robinson and Michelle Obama in “Becoming” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The good news for Michelle Obama fans is that the documentary “Becoming” is everything people would expect of a movie that takes a behind-the-scenes of her massively successful “Becoming” memoir book tour, which included sold-out arena shows in North America and Europe in 2018 and 2019. The bad news for Michelle Obama fans who want her to run for political office someday is that she makes it very clear in the documentary’s candid interviews that she’s not interested in subjecting herself to the cutthroat business of being a politician. And she definitely doesn’t miss the unrelenting scrutiny and criticism that she and her family got when her husband, Barack Obama, was president of the United States from 2009 to 2017.

As for people who aren’t Michelle Obama fans (who probably won’t watch this movie anyway), the “Becoming” documentary won’t do much to change their minds, since it shows her in a very positive and sympathetic light in her outreach to the public and how she embodies the same progressive ideals that she had when she was first lady of the United States. Because the movie is about a book tour, which basically shows Michelle Obama interacting with numerous adoring fans, the documentary is told very much from a “bubble” perspective. Michelle Obama is not seen having to directly deal with anyone who is critical of her and her husband. (And there are are lot of people who are definitely not fans of the couple.)

However, the movie does include montages of TV footage and Internet comments from Obama critics to show the high level of animosity toward the Obamas. And what people can see from the film (and in Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir “Becoming”) is that she’s not afraid to show her vulnerable side by admitting that a lot of the insults and violent threats from Obama haters have done some damage.

In the documentary, she comments on the hate and backlash that she’s received from people who want to see the downfall of the Obamas: “The one thing I can share is that is does hurt. Because if we walk around like it doesn’t, the perpetrator can just say, ‘I was joking. It’s just politics.’ No, no. That [hatred] changes the shape of a person’s soul.”

“Becoming” is the feature-film directorial debut of Nadia Hellgren, who previously helmed short films such as Netflix’s “After Maria” (a documentary about Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico), as well as the digital docuseries “She’s the Ticket,” about American women running for political office. Hellgren does a very capable job of balancing tour footage and archival footage in “Becoming,” and the filmmakers are clearly fans of the Obamas. The movie hits some very familiar beats that are often seen in tour documentaries. There’s a “feel-good home movie” approach to the documentary, as opposed to a “journalistic exposé” approach. Some people will have a problem with that, while others won’t.

“Becoming” is the third Netflix project to be released from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, which also backed the Netflix documentaries “American Factory” (which won several awards, including an Oscar) and “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Since Barack Obama left office, he and Michelle Obama have inked deals with Penguin Random House (for a reported $65 million) and Netflix, which didn’t disclose the financial terms of its deal with the Obamas, but a low-end estimate is that it’s at least $100 million. Award-winning comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle and TV producers Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rimes have each inked Netflix deals in the $100 million to $300 million range, so presumably the Obamas have also garnered a Netflix deal in that range.

The fact that the Obamas’ wealth has significantly increased since Barack left office is not mentioned at all in the movie. Also not mentioned in the film are the superstar-level ticket prices charged for Michelle Obama’s arena tour. However, it’s easy to see why the “Becoming” filmmakers chose to omit that information from the film, because if they included it, there would be inevitable criticism that it would make Michelle Obama look greedy or boastful about her wealth.

In fact, the documentary goes out its way to show that Michelle Obama wants to still be perceived as someone who hasn’t lost touch with her working-class roots—she grew up on the South Side of Chicago, which she frequently mentions in the movie—and that she still identifies with the “common people,” even though she’s very aware that her life has become far from common. There are several scenes of her going to places outside of her massive arena shows to lead small group discussions with people from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, such as teenage students, members of book clubs and African American churchgoers. In these settings, she hugs many people and gives advice that’s meant to uplift people’s spirits and boost their confidence.

Although these groups are often racially diverse, “Becoming” places an emphasis on Michelle Obama connecting with women and people of color in these groups. During one of these group discussions, when Michelle Obama is asked by an African American teenage girl how to handle being treated as invisible, Michelle replies: “I never felt invisible. It’s because my parents always made be feel visible.”

She continues, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen. We’re far from it. Time will not allow it. It’s not going to happen with one president, with one vote, so you’ve got to find the tools within yourself to be visible and to be heard and to use your voice.”

The documentary even goes as far as showing footage of two of the teenage students—Elizabeth Cervantes and Shayla Allen—who met Michelle Obama in these discussion groups, to see what these students are like in their everyday lives. When Cervantes met Michelle Obama in the discussion group, Cervantes was a senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet School in Chicago, where Michelle went during the book tour.

The movie shows Cervantes questioning why she was one of the small number of people chosen for the group discussion with Michelle Obama, since Cervantes said that she wasn’t an academically outstanding student. However, when Cervantes said that in addition to going to school, she works to help give financial help to her father and younger brothers, Michelle pointed out that Cervantes’ family devotion and hard work made her special and shouldn’t be considered less important than academic achievements.

In another part of the documentary, Michelle Obama says in a group discussion: “I tell people we focus too much on stats and not on story. Stats are ‘What college are you from?’ Story is ‘What was your grandfather like? Who was your favorite relative and why?'”

Because people in the U.S. have divided opinions about the Obamas, this type of public interaction can be seen as either very inspirational or very phony. The fans would say that it shows Michelle Obama as down-to-earth and caring deeply about connecting with people who aren’t as privileged as she is. The critics would say it’s just a calculated façade that’s part of the publicity campaign to sell her book. These smaller gatherings are some of the reasons people will want to see the “Becoming” documentary, because it’s a behind-the-scenes look that wasn’t widely shown in the media coverage of the tour.

As for the on-stage footage, there’s plenty of that too, but it’s less revealing, because so much of it has already been covered by the media and is available on audience-filmed videos that have been posted on the Internet. For whatever reason (which isn’t explained in the movie), “Becoming” only has behind-the-scenes footage of the tour in the U.S. and Canada, not in Europe.

The documentary has the expected charming soundbites and anecdotes (many of them very amusing) of Michelle Obama being interviewed on stage by various celebrities. Each show of the tour had a different celebrity moderator. The moderators included Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Valerie Jarrett, Conan O’Brien, Tracee Ellis Ross and Phoebe Robinson.

People who’ve already read the “Becoming” memoir won’t be surprised by what’s said on stage. For example, Michelle Obama repeats the story about how a guidance counselor at her high school discouraged her from applying to Princeton University, because the counselor told her that she didn’t have what it took to be a Princeton student. Michelle not only graduated from Princeton, but she also got her law degree from Harvard University. On stage, Michelle says about that the counselor’s negativity: “I’m still salty about that,” but she uses it as an example of how people shouldn’t let their identities and dreams be defined by haters or people who don’t want others to succeed.

And the backstage footage is also what people would expect, as Michelle Obama greets star-struck and worshipful fans (mostly female, many of them tearful) during book signings and photo ops. “Becoming” is probably the only documentary where people can see Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey backstage in a prayer circle before going on stage at an arena show. There are some sections of the documentary where Michelle Obama reads excerpts of her “Becoming” memoir, but most of her candid comments in the movie are from new interviews that she did specifically for the film.

Michelle Obama says of her meet-and-greets: “It’s an emotional, sociological dance with people … When somebody walks up to me, [I] don’t look around, look beyond them. Look them in the eye. Take in their story. This is how I relate to people. It helps me stay connected.”

Barack Obama makes a brief appearance in the documentary, as he’s seen backstage at the show in Washington, D.C., and appearing on stage to surprise Michelle with a bouquet of flowers. Barack and Michelle’s daughters Malia and Sasha are also briefly in the documentary. There’s footage of a tearful Malia hugging Michelle backstage after a show and saying, “Those eight years [in the White House] weren’t for nothing. People are here because people believe in love and hope and other people.”

The Michelle Obama family members who get the most screen time are her older brother Craig Robinson (who’s a sports executive) and her mother Marian Shields Robinson. Craig, who says that he will always be his mother’s favorite child, admits that he younger sister’s fame has caused some insecurities for him: “No brother should have to deal with their sister being the most popular person in the world.” (Michelle Obama being “the most popular person in the world” is certainly debatable, considering there are celebrities who are beloved by people of all political affiliations, whereas it’s not a secret that a lot of people dislike the Michelle and Barack Obama because of the couple’s liberal politics.)

The documentary includes scenes of Michelle visiting Craig and his family at Craig’s home, as well as Michelle and her mother Marian going back to Michelle’s former childhood home in Chicago, where she and Barack lived in the first year of their marriage. (The house’s current owners aren’t in the movie.)

Michelle Obama also shares fond and bittersweet memories of her father, Fraser C. Robinson III, who died from multiple sclerosis in 1991: “The pain of losing him is an emptiness that I still haven’t gotten over … He just made people feel loved.”

The former first lady makes it clear that she was never ashamed of being raised in a working-class home. Her father was a pump work at a water plant, while Michelle’s mother worked as a secretary for various organizations, including the University of Chicago and mail-order company Spiegel. Michelle Obama also mentions that because of racism, her father was frequently underappreciated and passed over for promotions at his job, while less intelligent and less qualified white co-workers were rewarded.  

Also interviewed are some of Michelle Obama’s longtime employees including chief of staff Melissa Winters and stylist Meredith Koop. Winters remembers that the first year of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was “exhausting” and “not glamorous.” Koop says that when it comes to Michelle Obama’s personal style, “She’s not a minimalist.”

Michelle Obama jokes with Winters: “Do you know that Melissa loves Barry Manilow? I don’t know why we’re friends. We couldn’t be more opposite.” The beginning of the movie shows Michelle getting in a SUV and listening to hip-hop on her phone. And in case you ever wanted to know what kinds of birthday gifts that Michelle Obama gets from her employees, the documentary has some footage of her backstage on her birthday getting “Happy Birthday” sung to her by her employees and getting a selfie stick as a gift.

Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” memoir revealed many of her experiences and feelings about being first lady of the United States. She does the same in the documentary, where she remembers getting harsh lessons in media scrutiny and public backlash during her husband’s first presidential campaign. “I stopped talking off-the-cuff,” she says. “I stopped talking freely. I used teleprompters. I had to be much more scripted than I had been before.”

She also describes how her life changed after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008: “One day, you’re a normal family, and election happens, and your life changes instantly. It’s like we were shot out of a cannon. We didn’t have time to adjust to it.”

And in somewhat of a rarity, a current U.S. Secret Service agent is interviewed in the documentary. Allen Taylor, who has worked with Michelle Obama since 2008, is “more like a brother” than a government employee, says Michelle. Taylor comments on his job of protecting Michelle Obama: “Stakes are high in this job. It’s a no-fault mission. You have to get it right 100% of the time.”

As for Michelle Obama’s reflections on being first lady of the United States, it’s obvious that she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she seems proud of the impact that Barack Obama’s presidency had on the entire world, as well as the historical significance of the Obamas being the first African American presidential family of the United States. On the other hand, she clearly does not want herself and her family to continue to go through the viciousness, dangerous hate and intense pressure that come with being family members of a very famous politician who’s in office.

In the documentary, she talks about how on the day that she and Barack left the White House after he left office, she didn’t break down and cry until she was away from the prying eyes of the media and the public: “When I got on the plane, I sobbed for about 30 minutes. I think it was the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”

And although Michelle Obama is grateful for all the support that she and her husband received that helped him become a two-term U.S. president, she also expresses disappointment that the same support wasn’t shown in the 2016 presidential election for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was endorsed by Barack and Michelle Obama.

“I understand why people voted for [Donald] Trump,” Michelle Obama says in the documentary. “The people who didn’t vote at all—the young people, the women—that’s when you think, ‘Man, people think this is a game. After all that, they didn’t bother to vote at all.’ That’s my trauma.” And she doesn’t mince words in her disappointment with black U.S. citizens who didn’t bother to vote in the 2016 presidential election: “A lot of our folks didn’t vote. It was almost like a slap in the face.”

She also believes that Barack Obama being the first African American president of the United States unleashed a lot of pent-up racism that has further divided America: “When Barack Obama was first elected, various commentators naively declared that our country was entering a post-racial era and that skin color would no longer matter. Many were overlooking the racism and tribalism that was tearing our nation apart.” She adds that because of her and her husband’s skin color, “Barack and I were living with the awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.”

So what does Michelle Obama want to do next? This documentary shows that it’s a question that she’s still trying to answer, as she detoxes into a less-stressful life and forges ahead with her own identity that is frequently overshadowed by her very famous husband. As she says in the film, “The idea of doing the tour was to be able to reflect, to figure out, ‘What just happened to me?’ This is totally me, unplugged, for the first time in a long time.” And as she says later in the movie, “There is another chapter waiting for me out there.”

Netflix will premiere “Becoming” on May 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,’ starring Winslow Fegley, Ophelia Lovibond, Kyle Bornheimer, Wallace Shawn and Craig Robinson

February 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Winslow Fegley in "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made"
Winslow Fegley in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (Photo by Dale Robinette/Disney+)

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made”

Directed by Tom McCarthy

Culture Representation: In this comedy based on the children’s book of a similar title, the racially diverse characters are primarily middle-class in Portland, Oregon.

Culture Clash: The story’s protagonist is a grim pre-teen boy who aspires to be a private detective, but he dislikes school, authority figures and almost everyone around him.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to children and other people who want to see a series of antics on screen instead of a compelling and coherent story.

Winslow Fegley, Chloe Coleman, Kei and Ai-Chan Carrier in "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made"
Winslow Fegley, Chloe Coleman, Kei and Ai-Chan Carrier in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (Photo by Dale Robinette/Disney+)

If you’re tired of children’s entertainment that has a sweet-natured and upbeat protagonist, then “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” which is about a pessimistic child who’s a wannabe detective, might be up your alley. However, this comedy film’s flawed and scattered story will test the patience of anyone looking for a realistic and cohesive plot.

The “Timmy Failure” book series (written by Stephan Pastis) began in 2013 with “Timmy Failure: Look What Mistakes Were Made,” so this Disney+ movie adaptation might become a movie series too. If so, the “Timmy Failure” movie series is off to a very questionable start, but there’s a lot of room to improve. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” was directed by Oscar-winning “Spotlight” screenwriter Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” screenplay with Pastis. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is perfect for a streaming service such as Disney+, since it’s doubtful that people would be willing to pay full ticket prices to see a movie about such an unlikable kid.

Timmy Failure is a fifth grader (about 10 or 11 years old) who lives in Portland, Oregon, and is—to put it nicely—very eccentric. He’s an antisocial loner who never smiles, and he has an extreme (and warped) sense of superiority about his intelligence. (He’s not as smart as he thinks he is.) He’s the kind of deliberately negative character who’s much more amusing to watch than to be around in real life. Timmy does a lot of deadpan narration in this film, and he says in the beginning of the story: “I am only concerned with one thing: greatness.”

But in reality, Timmy’s life isn’t so great. He’s barely getting by in school, because he’d prefer to start his own detective agency instead of studying and doing his homework. He has such a disdain for school that he doodles and sketches on test forms instead of filling out the tests with real answers. He also doesn’t think much of other people—his favorite word to describe most people is “problematic”—and his single-minded focus on becoming a private investigator includes a condescending attitude toward police.

Timmy also has a strange prejudice against Russians, whom he automatically suspects of being the perpetrators of any real or perceived crimes that he starts to investigate. His hatred of Russians (he calls them “evil”) seems out of place in a children’s story. Because Tommy’s animosity toward Russians is never explained and certainly never justified, this type of bigotry ultimately isn’t necessary. Imagine if he spouted that kind of hatred toward females or people of a different race. It wouldn’t make it past the editing process of this story.

Timmy’s parents split up years ago, so his bohemian single mother Patty Failure (played by Ophelia Lovibond) isn’t as attentive as she could be, because she’s overwhelmed with working to pay their bills. Timmy’s only “friend” is a 1,500-pound polar bear named Total, who showed up at Timmy’s house one day after the bear was forced out of its home due to global warming. It’s implied in the movie that Total is a figment of Timmy’s imagination, because the bear is seen walking around town, riding in automobiles and going to places where no wild animal of that size would be allowed, and yet people act like it’s perfectly normal.

In his cluttered and messy home, Timmy has set up his one-person “detective agency.” Another sign of his eccentricity is his unwillingness to use 21st-century or computerized resources in his work. His business cards are hand-written. He doesn’t seem to use the Internet. And to record interviews, he uses an old audiocassette recorder that’s held together by tape.

Another one of Timmy’s quirks his that he likes to wear a red scarf as often as possible. He also has this response whenever someone gets angry at something he did: “Normal is for normal people.” And whenever something disastrous happens because of one of his inevitable bad decisions, he says, “Mistakes were made.”

According to Timmy, the polar bear Total is supposed to be a partner in the detective agency, but the polar bear doesn’t do much in this movie except wander around town by itself and show up at infrequent, random moments when Timmy is around. Timmy transports himself by a Segway that his mother won in a church raffle. So, when the Segway (which he calls the Failure Mobile) gets stolen, he makes it his mission to find it and hold the thief responsible.

But before that happens, there are several side “investigations” that Timmy starts and then leaves hanging. He offers to find a fellow student’s lost backpack, but then never follows through on that promise. He’s tasked with the responsibility of taking care of his science class’ pet hamster in his home when it’s his turn to do so. But when he goes to pick up the hamster at the home of a fellow student, the hamster is dead, so Timmy says he’s going to launch a “homicide investigation” to find out who “murdered” the animal. (It never occurs to him that the hamster could have died of natural causes.) These subplots are really distractions and only serve the purpose of showing how annoying Timmy can be.

Timmy attends Cavarette Elementary School, where the classmate who can tolerate him the most is Charles “Rollo” Tookus (played by Kei), whom Timmy treats more as a sidekick than a real friend. Rollo and Timmy have an up-and-down relationship, since Timmy only seems to want to be around Rollo when he needs Rollo to help him with “detective work.” They’ve been estranged in the past: Timmy says in a voiceover narration that he had to “fire” Rollo as his business associate, but Rollo says he actually quit. As much as Timmy distrusts authority and breaks rules, Rollo (who has ambitions to go to Stanford University) likes to follow rules and respect authority.

Two other classmates who are in Timmy’s orbit are smart and likable Molly Moskins (played by Chloe Coleman) and rich girl Corrina Corrina (played by Ai-Chan Carrier). For reasons that aren’t explained in the movie, Timmy really dislikes Corrina to the point where he calls her the “most problematic” person he knows. He says that she and her family are Russian, even though there’s no proof that they are. And he refuses to call her by her name. He only refers to her as “The Nameless One.”

Is she some pre-teen female version of “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort? No. She’s actually very nice to Timmy and other people, but it’s implied that Timmy dislikes and fears her so much because he might have a secret crush on her and he thinks she’s out of his league. Timmy’s negativity about Corrina is so irrational that he thinks the Segway might be hidden in the bank that her father owns. So, Timmy and Rollo go “undercover” to the bank to investigate (their idea of “undercover” is  wearing hockey masks), and some slapstick silliness ensues.

During the course of the movie, Timmy’s mother Patty begins dating a “regular Joe” type of guy named Crispin (played by Kyle Bornheimer), who works as a parking enforcement officer. He’s so self-deprecating about his job that he even calls himself a “meter maid.” It’s a joke that’s made repeatedly in the movie until it starts to wear very thin. Not surprisingly, Timmy doesn’t respect or trust Crispin, even though Crispin tries to establish a rapport with him.

Timmy’s assigned school counselor Mr. Jenkins (played by Craig Robinson) also tries to form a friendly and caring bond with Timmy, but Timmy brushes off attempts by any adults (except his mother) to get close to him. She’s really the only adult he’s willing to obey—and that moment comes when a series of mishaps caused by Timmy result in her finally getting fed up with him and grounding him.

Meanwhile, there’s someone whom Timmy considers a true enemy: Mr. Crocus (played by Wallace Shawn), Timmy’s no-nonsense authoritarian science teacher, who’s been an educator for 43 years and who openly dislikes Timmy.  (The feeling is very mutual.) In a meeting with Timmy’s mother, Mr. Crocus tells her that he’s close to flunking Timmy if Timmy doesn’t drastically improve. Mr. Crocus mentions that Timmy and his mother have been given plenty of warnings, and this will be their last chance. If Timmy fails to pass Mr. Crocus’ class, then Timmy won’t graduate to middle school.

One of the best aspects of “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is when the movie shows glimpses of fantasy sequences that are in his imagination. When middle school is first mentioned in the story, the scene flashes to Timmy’s imagination of kids being marched into a truck titled “Our Crusher of Souls.” When Timmy’s mother Patty mentions how great it would be to live in New York City, the scene cuts to a theater stage showing Timmy’s detective agency as the inspiration of an elaborate Broadway musical, complete with Total descending on the stage in a prop shaped like a half-moon. Another fantasy shows Total causing havoc in Crispin’s office at the police station, while Crispin lets out a horrified scream. But those refreshingly amusing fantasy sequences can’t quite make up for the trite and unfocused aspects of the story.

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” will be enjoyed best by people (mostly children) who just want to see a weird kid get into all kinds of trouble on screen. Fans of mystery/detective stories will be disappointed because crime-solving is not the real attraction. The real purpose of the Timmy Failure character is to show how someone who thinks very highly of himself is in reality very inept and clueless—and that will make viewers feel better about themselves. Timmy Failure is basically an American kid version of Inspector Clouseau of “The Pink Panther” series, but with a lot less clever writing.

Disney+ premiered “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” on February 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Dolittle,’ starring Robert Downey Jr.

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert Downey Jr.  and parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dolittle”

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Culture Representation: Set primarily in the United Kingdom, this dramatic adventure movie’s live-action characters are nearly all white; the voice actors portraying the animated animals are a racially mixed cast; and the social classes range from working-class to royalty.

Culture Clash: A reclusive doctor with the special power to talk to animals reluctantly goes on a journey to find a rare medical cure, and faces obstacles that include more than one villain.

Culture Audience: “Dolittle” will appeal primarily to fans of children-oriented entertainment who don’t mind if the visuals are much better than the storytelling.

Dab-Dab the duck (voiced by Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (played by Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s not really a good sign when a major-studio film headlined by an A-list movie star is released in January, the month that’s a notorious dumping ground for bad movies. Universal Pictures must have known that “Dolittle” was going to be a dud, even with star Robert Downey Jr. coming off his major hot streak in the blockbuster superhero “Avengers” and “Iron Man” movies. (“Avengers: Endgame,” Downey’s 2019 movie that was released before “Dolittle,” now holds the record as the world’s biggest box-office movie hit of all time, ending the 10-year reign at the top held by “Avatar.”) “Dolittle” isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a terribly generic film in an era when we’ve been bombarded with kids-oriented movies that have talking animals.

By making “Dolittle” an action-adventure film, “Dolittle” director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, tried to do something different from previous “Dolittle” movies. The original 1967 “Dr. Dolittle” film, starring Rex Harrison and a cast of other Brits, was a musical adapted from Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle” book series. The three “Dr. Dolittle” movies from 1998, 2000 and 2006 were slapstick American comedies—the first two starred Eddie Murphy as the title character, and a third film was an ill-conceived flop starring Kyla Pratt, who played Dolittle’s daughter in the first two Murphy-starring films.

Gaghan’s “Dolittle” goes back to the original United Kingdom location, during the mid-1800s era of a young Queen Victoria (played by Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness. During the film’s animated opening sequence, viewers see that veterinarian John Dolittle once led a happy life taking care of animals with his beloved wife Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak), who died tragically.

Fast forward seven years later, and Dr. Dolittle has become a cranky hermit who has neglected his hygiene (he’s so unkempt that a mouse has been living in his beard), as he lives with his animals on his estate that’s essentially an animal sanctuary. The filmmakers have made Dolittle a Welshman, so it might take a while for some viewers to getting used to hearing Downey speak in a Welsh accent that sounds a little too pretentious for a movie where most of his co-stars are animated talking animals. This is a kids’ movie, not Shakespeare.

Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett), a boy from the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, is an orphaned misfit who lives with his aunt and uncle. Tommy loves animals, and is therefore uncomfortable when he’s forced to go hunting with his uncle. When Tommy accidentally shoots a squirrel while hunting, he decides to take the injured animal to the mysterious Dr. Dolittle, even though the doctor has a reputation for being a curmudgeon. Instead of being afraid of Dolittle’s menagerie of wild animals, Tommy is fascinated and finds out that he has a knack for communicating with animals too. Affected by Tommy’s presence, Dolittle cleans himself up, as he notices that Tommy sees him as a role model and possible mentor.

It isn’t long before Dolittle gets another visitor: Queen Victoria’s attendant Lady Rose (played Carmel Laniado), who arrives with orders to bring Dolittle to Buckingham Palace to give medical aid to the queen. Dolittle has a big incentive to save the queen’s life, because his property has been loaned to him by the queen, and if she dies, he will lose the property.

While at the palace, Dolittle has an awkward reunion with a former school rival: royal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (played by Michael Sheen), who is jealous of Dolittle’s talent and acclaim. Müdfly is such an over-the-top villain that he practically twirls his moustache and gnashes his teeth. And there’s another antagonist in the story: the ambitious Lord Thomas Badgley (played by Jim Broadbent), who will inherit the throne if Queen Victoria dies. (At this point in her life, Victoria is not married and has no children.)

Dolittle determines that the best cure for the queen’s life-threatening illness is fruit from the Eden Tree on Eden Tree Island, because this fruit is said to have magical powers. (How biblical.) Tommy has essentially decided that he doesn’t really want to go home, so he tags along on Dolittle’s voyage, with Dolittle’s numerous animals in tow as they set sail on a ship called the Water Lily.

Now, about the animals. The problem with “Dolittle” is that there are too many of them in this film. If you’re someone with a short attention span, good luck trying to keep track of all the talking animals. The “Madagascar” movies (another animated series with a variety of wild animals that talk) worked so well because the animals were in a relatively small group and their personalities were so distinct. In “Dolittle,” the personalities of most of the animals tend to blend together in a crowded mush, with the notable exception of the parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), a dutifully efficient assistant/caretaker with a whip-smart attitude. Polynesia holds a special place in Dolittle’s heart because the parrot used to be owned by Dolittle’s late wife Lily.

The other animals in this mixed-bag menagerie are Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), an insecure gorilla; Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a maternal, scatterbrained American Pekin duck; Plimpton, a nervous osctrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a polar bear who hates the cold, loves adventure, and often bickers with Plimpton; Betsy (voiced by Selena Gomez), a kind giraffe; Kevin (voiced by Crag Robinson), the injured squirrel that was accidentally shot by Tommy and who has a cheeky sense of humor; Tutu (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a fearless fox with leadership qualities; and Mini (voiced by Nick A. Fisher), a baby sugar glider that’s constantly curious.

Meanwhile, other talking animals include brainy dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), a long-haired Lurcher tasked with guarding the queen; Humphrey (voiced by Tim Treloar), a whale that helps navigate the Water Lily; James (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), a nervous dragonfly; Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), a Bengal tiger with mommy issues and a grudge against Dolittle; Don Carpenterino (voiced by David Sheinkopf), the leader of an ant colony; Army Ant (voiced by Matthew Wolfe), Don’s sidekick; and Dragon (voiced by Frances de la Tour), guardian of the Eden Tree.

As for other human characters, there’s also Pirate King Rassouli (played by Antonio Banderas), who lives on Monteverde Island, one of the stops along the way to Eden Tree Island. Banderas hams it up as yet another adversary to Dolittle and his crew. Large ensembles can work for well-written, live-action films geared to adults. But when it’s a mostly animated film geared to kids, the movie can come across as too cluttered for its own good.

“Dolittle” certainly has an impressive cast of acting talent. It’s too bad that so many of the characters are bland. Furthermore, Chee-Chee (the gorilla that’s a visual standout) is a missed opportunity, since the character was miscast for its voice. Malek sounds more like the minature “Frozen” snowman Olaf than a massive gorilla. The Chee-Chee character needed an actor with a deeper voice to better reflect the gorilla’s intimidating physical presence. Former wrestling champ Cena, who’s the voice of Yoshi the polar bear, would have been better in the role of Chee-Chee.

Although the characters in this movie are very underdeveloped, the compelling visual effects (overseen by visual effects supervisors Nicolas Aithadi and John Dykstra) are the most entertaining aspect of the film. Young children who are dazzled by visuals should enjoy “Dolittle” for the movie’s colorful ambiance, even if they won’t remember most of the movie’s animal characters weeks after seeing this film. (Don’t expect there to be a high demand for “Dolittle” toys.) More mature viewers might get easily bored with this movie, because it wallows in a lot of mediocrity that wastes this talented cast.

Simply put: “Dolittle” is not the kind of movie that people looking for high-quality entertainment will rush to see multiple times while it’s in theaters. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Universal Pictures released “Dolittle” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.