I can sort of understand why Robert Downey Jr. picked Dolittle as his first post-MCU movie. After eleven years of carefully escalated spectacle and scale in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film seems quaint, classic and family-friendly… at least on paper. But in terms of lasting appeal, Dolittle feels destined to make rerun appearances on Disney Channel, especially with a script that might as well have been created for a Disney Channel original movie. I can see kids enjoying this for the jokes and swashbuckling flair- the kids sitting near me in the theater were certainly laughing- but there’s little to sustain interest beyond that democraphic. This is a January movie, after all.
As the first new Dolittle film since the modernized Eddie Murphy-era films, this one tries to be a big more faithful to the books. Downey plays the titular John Dolittle, an eccentric veterinarian with the unique ability to talk with animals in their language. Following the death of his wife Lily, however Dolittle has shut himself in his large estate with all the trademarks of a cinematic recluse: growing a Gandalf-sized beard and communicating in animal grunts. Because in cinema it’s rare that a man can lose his wife without feeling the need to abandon humanity altogether. That is, until two children show up at his doorstep: Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who brings over an injured squirrel for the doctor to treat, and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), an assistant to Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley, who’s literally unconscious for most of this film).
Turns out the Queen has been poisoned, and with this turn of events comes a threat to Dolittle’s living conditions. After all, her Majesty purchased Doittle Manor and, should she die, the house will be revoked and all the animals will be released into the wild… during hunting season. The only cure is the fruit of the mystical Eden Tree, a long-hidden treasure that Dolittle’s wife sought after before her death. Much to the annoyance of scientific rival Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, with a quintessential bad guy goatee), Dolittle takes his array of quirky animals and a stowaway Stubbins, who wishes to become his apprentice, on a treacherous overseas journey to save queen and home and learn to tolerate people again.
Yes it wouldn’t be a Dolittle adaptation without the eccentric wildlife creatures he finds more appealing than humans. And this is one of those films where you can’t believe so many actors showed up for, well this. We’ve got Rami Malek as Chee-Chee- a caring gorilla in need of confidence skills, Emma Thomson as maternal macaw Polynesia, and even John Cena voicing an agile polar bear named Yoshi constantly at odds with cynical ostrich Plimpton (Kumali Nanjiana). Names like Octavia Spencer, Ralph Fiennes and even Downey’s Marvel co-star Tom Holland give voice cameos that, I’ll concede, don’t feel phoned in. Maybe everyone just wanted to have a laugh and they all sound engaged and likable. The problem is the humor doesn’t really gel. If anything it’s quite crass and not helped at all by haphazard editing and rushed pacing.
Classic Dolittle is set in Victorian times and thus sees RDJ speak in a raspy, whimsical British voice. The animals, however, use contemporary slang and pop culture jokes that unfortunately hit the toilet humor button studios keep thinking children only want to see. Sometimes the jokes are clever- a whale literally “flips” Michael Sheen off and a tiger with a Jewish last name makes an amusing statement about doctors- but that’s what the parents will like. One must think kids will be distracted the over the top animal dynamics, but CGI for these characters is all over the place. There’s rarely anything resembling the photorealism of Jungle Book or Lion King live-action, so a plausible shot will quickly switch to one where the fur and faces look too artificial to take seriously. Sure the faces are more expressive than The Lion King, but that doesn’t equate to being more engaging.
Even though it adapts parts of the classic Doctor Dolittle stories, you don’t have to be well-versed in his novel exploits to watch Dolittle. You won’t, however, care much about most of the characters on two legs. Lady Rose just stays back at Buckingham palace to watch the Queen and Tommy feels more like a tagalong than an actual character. Sure he finds Dolittle fascinating but all we get out of this kid is “his family are hunters, he doesn’t want to kill animals.” Also there’s pirate lord named Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) who has a history with Dolittle- it’s more character than what we get with the kids, but still constrained to another basic character trope. Really, only Sheen gets the most out of what he’s given and mostly by being a sniveling ham for the camera, which does make for some good laughs.
The thing just holding all these pieces together, understandably, is Downey as Dolittle. There’s a nice mix of eccentricity and sadness to his performance, that of a man who misses the thrill of adventure but, for all his healing skills, can’t heal a broken heart. Moments that should have been dull or would have been energized with camp, as is the case with Sheen’s performance, have a bit of quiet nuance when he’s on screen. It hardly makse up for the film’s lack of ambition, but it shows he was trying. Then he goes and gives one mystical creature an enema and you have to wonder “why this?”
Verdict: 1.5 out of 5 Stars
Am I going to recommend Dolittle? No. Not unless you have kids who are mildly interested, though kids deserve a lot better. It has a few moments of visual creativity, including some neat camera shots that “transition” the viewer from hearing animal speak as common folk would to how Dolittle hears it. But with a by the books story, wonky CGI and low brow humor destined to date itself, it’s not going to stay in your memory. Like I said: Disney Channel rerun territory.