"Can you imagine a fantasy land where everyone is best friends?" voiceover narrator Judi Dench asks. That's an ironic beginning for a film that seems lacking in both imagination and energy—which is surprising, really, since "Doogal" is based on a popular children's book, and there is enough star power in the cast to light up a room. Chevy Chase is on board as The Train, Jimmy Fallon plays Dylan the rock 'n' roll rabbit, Whoopi Goldberg is Ermintrude the opera-loving cow, William H. Macy is Brian the snail, Ian McKellen is good spring wizard Zebedee, Jon Stewart is bad spring wizard Zeebad, and Kevin Smith is The Moose. Unfortunately, the big-name voice actors don't seem into their characters enough to bring energy to them or to the film, and the result is a mish-mash that is neither charming enough to enthrall anyone under the age of seven, nor clever enough to amuse the rest of the family. Directors Jean Duval, Frank Passsignham, and Dave Borthwick could have hired me and other people off the streets and gotten the same results: a dull film with no heart. Then again, these characters don't seem to have a great deal of personality as written.
For starters, the script from Paul Bassett Davies is contrived and about as bland as unbuttered toast, despite being crammed full of elements swiped from more successful films. In the center of this idyllic friend-land is a merry-go-round that everyone enjoys, until Doogal (Daniel Tay), a candy-loving dog, accidentally destroys it and uncovers "something dark and dangerously locked inside"—the evil Zeebad, who was entombed like the bad guys in "Superman 2" until fate lets him loose. Zeebad had tried to freeze the entire world, and was imprisoned by his counterpart who also has a spring instead of legs. And now that he's bounced loose, he wants to finish the job. Inexplicably, Doogal's human friend, Florence (Kylie Minogue), and her friends are frozen inside the ruins of the carousel, and it's up to Doogal and his boring friends to find three diamonds to re-install on the carousel before Zeebad can, or the girls (and this fantasy land) are doomed. By this time, I'm thinking, "Doogal" feels more like a video game turned into a movie . . . or worse, a movie with video game and product tie-ins in mind.
Part of the plot is ripped off from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," while there's also a flying ship and Skull Island that come from "Peter Pan," The Moose seems right out of "Brother Bear," and the quest for the three diamonds and pilgrims owe a certain debt to "Lord of the Rings." In addition, there are scenes that draw upon "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Raiders of the Lost Arc," but not in a terribly clever or subtle way. Each picture is named, and the whole fun of movie allusions is in being able to spot them on your own. There's a tendency in Davies' script to tell rather than show—a cardinal sin for creative writers—and we get a character saying "I don't care it's a 'Star Trek' convention. Trekkies! Nerd Alert!" The humor is obvious, and the biggest laughs in this otherwise pre-school aged film come from flatulence, which is something that moms and dads of the tiny-tot set won't appreciate.
Aside from the furry Doogal himself, the other 3-D CG characters aren't all that interesting or endearing. Two wizards who hop about on springs? A snail with a straw hat and scarf? A cow with straw hat and scarf? A rabbit with denim vest and jeans and a Mohawk and sideburns? And the voices, as played, are far too similar in range and tone. The snail, the rabbit, and both wizards are played straight in voices that sound like textbook Midwestern radio or TV announcers. You also have to question the casting, because Stewart and Fallon have the same sort of world-weary sardonic monotone that serves them well in their own performances but works against their characters. There's nothing remotely evil about Stewart's performance. What's perhaps even more unforgivable is the performers' lack of energy. Maybe a lackluster script is to blame, or characters that just didn't inspire them, or maybe the voice directors were too intimidated by the big names to insist on more energetic performances. But the voice acting is surprisingly low-energy and flat-out dull. If any animated film could have used a good musical score to liven things up, this is it. But the only moment when there's any energy whatsoever comes in the beginning when Jimmy Fallon and Whoopi Goldberg team up to sing a version of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." After that, it's all downhill.
And speaking of downhill, even when the gang and the train careen down a long slide, shades of "Ice Age," you don't believe they're in any jeopardy and there's no sense of excitement or emotion. Ultimately, it's a "Who cares?" film that lacks heart and any real sense of urgency or purpose. In not knowing whether to deliver a "message" film for young kids about the value of friendship or in piecing together a crazy quilt of movie allusions that would appeal to older audiences, the filmmakers got caught in a limbo world where nothing seems honest or compelling.
The most interesting and original moment comes when the gang encounters a carnivorous flower that rattles at them like the tail of a snake. But the filmmakers don't seem to be able to gauge what's interesting and what's not. We see this plant for just a moment and then it's gone. No peril, no encounter, no milking the situation for all it's worth. Just a detail that's abandoned in favor of more clichés. There's a reference made to Smurfs mid-way through the film, and this pretty much plays like a "Smurfs" episode. At one point snail says, "We have one small problem: we have no idea where we're going," and you get the feeling that he's speaking for the filmmakers. Mercifully, this one comes in at only 77 minutes.
The version that's released in the U.S. was re-recorded with a mostly U.S. cast. After watching this, I'd like to get my hands on a copy of the U.K. version to see if the voices are the culprit, or if "The Magic Roundabout," as it's called overseas, is still a small-fry only flick no matter who's doing the voices.
Video: There are two versions on this two-sided disc, pan-and-scan and widescreen. Though the box doesn't say so, the widescreen appears to be 1.85:1 anamorphic, and the picture quality is quite good, though the colors range surprisingly on the tawny side.
Audio: The audio is English Dolby Digital 5.1, with Spanish subtitles. The sound is also quite good. No complaints here.
Extras: Aside from the original trailer, there's only an average making-of feature that feels like a promo, though it has considerably more energy than the film itself. The performers seem much more animated than when they were animated. Go figure.
Bottom Line: The box proclaims that "Doogal" has received the Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board, but what that proves to me is that it's gotten to the point where any film with a "G" rating in a "PG-13" world can be lauded, no matter what its shortcomings. "Doogal" is a pointless mish-mash/rehash with characters that aren't endearing and references to other films that aren't allusions at all—just pages torn from the book and pasted into a lackluster script. This one will probably be a hit with pre-schoolers, but a miss with the rest of the family.