The rituals of awards season are ideal for surrounding hits with glitz, but some big-budget movies with mixed reviews can get lost in the smoke and mirrors. Consider the case of three of history’s priciest creature features — Dolittle, Underwater and Cats — all opening quietly amidst Oscar distractions, and leaving potential write-offs surpassing $100 million. They are anomalies – intriguing movies that distributors couldn’t quite figure out how to sell.
In Dolittle, an assemblage of animals chat cheerfully with Robert Downey Jr., while in Cats a phalanx of felines artfully sing and dance. Both movies, while polar opposites, deliver memorable moments of wit and charm, albeit obscured by conceptual hazards. In Underwater, Kristen Stewart copes with creepy crawlies that don’t seem to scare anyone except critics (a 53% Rotten Tomatoes score).
Awards season inspires filmmakers to reflect on the tenuous line between success and failure (see grim details below). “Audiences don’t realize that the margin is alarmingly thin,” as one battle-weary director reflected this week (his latest is a flop).
Coincidentally, I caught Dolittle one day after a screening of Cats — two films that together represent major strategy adjustments for artists who are accustomed to mind-blowing success. In Dolittle, a disheveled Iron Man, now a doctor, adopts a muddle of British accents to plunge into a role that in earlier decades defied Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy. Prior to release, the movie sustained two scheduling delays for substantial reshoots.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the master showman who created Cats, originally played with proposals (one from Steven Spielberg) for an animated adaptation. After an 18-year theatrical run on Broadway, what could go wrong?
Full disclosure: I admired both Dolittle and Cats, or at least the best parts of them, which reflected inspiration and artistry. I understand how they got made. The Cats cast includes James Corden and Taylor Swift and veterans Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, passionately delivering T.S. Eliot-inspired lyrics (Cats was based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.) The dancers are brilliant, incorporating ballet and Broadway street dancing, and Lloyd Webber’s music has worked for millions of admirers. The director of Cats, Tom Hooper, scored a giant hit with his film adaptation of Les Miserables.
Dolittle presents an array of creatures voiced by Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer and Rami
Malek, among others, playing a neurotic gorilla, a bird-brained duck and a cynical ostrich. Set in
19th century England, the narrative focuses on Dolittle’s troubled voyage with his creatures to
find a cure for the ailing young Queen Victoria.
The journey is sporadically hilarious; its narrative confusing, the jokes abundant (Chris McKay of The Big Short and Jonathan Liebesman were among those brought in as “fixers” on the movie, which Stephen Gaghan directed).
So what’s missing? Critics of Cats were outraged by the furry feline CGI costumes as well as by the stagy British presentation. The upshot: Cats emerges as a uniquely expensive art movie that is yet to find an audience. Dolittle’s problem, by contrast, is one of coherence. If the costumes of Cats seem distracting, so does the convoluted narrative of Dolittle. In both cases, the end product towers above that of Underwater, which was financed by Fox, then distributed by Disney.
Pauline Kael once admonished her fellow critics that “movies rarely represent great art, so you must learn how to appreciate trash.” But none of the creature features could be dismissed as “trash,” unlike the majority of movies that have bit the dust over the years.
Michael Adams, a film critic who “risked retinal burnout” by collecting and reviewing the worst movies ever made, concludes that their fate was usually sealed by conceptual confusion as well as lame execution. Showgirls, the famous 1995 disaster directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas, then Hollywood’s most expensive screenwriter, veered between melodrama and self-parody and ended up sweeping the Razzies.
“Showgirls was not supposed to be a comedy,” Verhoeven told Adams. “It was an attempt to show the filth of Vegas in the most blatant terms.”
Many of the “worst ever” films, Adams notes, were sequels to hit movies — Grease 2, or Return
to the Blue Lagoon or Exorcist II: The Heretic. All started out trying to capitalize on initial successes but ended up parodying them.
Other films on the “worst’ list had better intentions but even worse results: Howard the Duck today seems even more misguided than it did in 1986, Adams relates. So does Spielberg’s disaster 1941, “a nonstop barrage of extravagantly overproduced screwball, slapstick and special effects – a study in overspending.”
Adams admits he personally is embarrassed by his overspending, paying for his obligatory homework. “It was a giddy feeling, paying good money for movies most people would pay not to see” ($13.46 for Orgy of the Dead and $10.48 for The Incredible Melting Man). Hopefully, he will catch free screenings of Cats, Dolittle and Underwater, thus avoiding further pressure on his bank account.