Directed by Stephen Gaghan
And here we find ourselves, in the opening weeks of a new year, a new decade, talking about Dolittle. And what is Dolittle? It's not a sequel, it's not a reboot or a remake. What is it then? Glad you asked. It is a very loose adaptation of a 98 year old children's book. A very broken and disjointed and tone deaf loose adaptation of a 98 year old children's book.
Some kids may like it. Or rather, they may like pieces of it. And there are some funny bits. But little of it is exciting or fun and that's the bare minimum a kid's movie should reach for, really. Much of Dolittle is dull and makes little narrative sense and judging by the reactions of the kids in my theatre, at times a tad too dark and kind of boring. Unless kids now show how much they love movies by crying in the first 10 minutes and then running around the theatre playing.
What is Dolittle actually about, you ask? Glad you asked. The movie is set seven or so years after Dr. Dolittle's wife has died. And I mean died died. Not returning in the 3rd act died. Really dead. Anyway, seven or so years after Mrs. Dolittle has died, a young boy who doesn't want to shoot ducks accidentally shoots a squirrel. Cue crying children. A parrot voiced by Emma Thompson guides the boy to Dr. Dolittle's estate and stuff and things happen. Just after he arrives a young girl arrives at the estate as well and she implores the doctor to visit Buckingham Palace because the Queen is sick and he is the only one that can save her because reasons. Dr. Dolittle gets cleaned up and Robert Downey, Jr. gets to do that cool hat trick he first did in Chaplin.
Anyway, the boy hides in the luggage and Robert Downey, Jr. rides an ostrich and the girl shares a carriage with a polar bear and a gorilla and a dog and various other critters. They arrive to find Queen Victoria in a coma. Turns out Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent are poisoning the Queen because reasons. Dr. Dolittle determines that the only thing that can save the Queen is an undiscovered fruit on an undiscovered island. Because reasons. And so the adventure begins. The villainous Michael Sheen is on their trail and the whole thing is put together in a way to make one suspect that Dolittle is an edit of a couple of different Dolittle movies. Anyway, there is a stop at Dr. Dolittle's father-in-law's island kingdom and Antonio Banderas and a dragonfly voiced by Jason Mantzoukas bring some much needed life to the shenanigans.
Now, let's talk about the good in Dolittle. The voice performances are fine for the most part. Rami Malek, John Cena, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Kumail Nanjiani, and Marion Cotillard are all top shelf, having a lot of fun and aiming for the target audience. Michael Sheen and Antonio Banderas also understand what kind of movie they're in and also bring a lot of fun. The animals are all cartoonish and that is a breath of fresh air. Think The Jungle Book remake, not The Lion King remake. And if you're sick of children's musicals, good news. The only song in Dolittle is played over the closing credits. What else is good about Dolittle? Some of the humour works. Much of it is anachronistic and I don't know if anyone was saying "bro" in Victorian England, but, hey, it's a kid's movie so give it a break.
What is bad about Dolittle? Funny you should ask. There are many things wrong and every question about what went wrong leads to even more questions. When did the money people say "the guy who gave the world Syriana, of course he can bring us a CGI-heavy children's movie"? What accent was Robert Downey, Jr using before the decision was made for him to re-do all of his dialogue in a way that is near impossible to understand, all mumbly and whispery and I think Welsh? I can't think of another time when the star of a blockbuster's mouth never, ever lines up with what is being heard. There are so many decisions that make little sense in Dolittle. It's a movie with very few transitions, where scenes just jump from location to location with little logic. It's like it was edited in a blender. It's a movie that has narration and then no narration for like an hour and then, boom, narration. It's a kid's movie about grief and loss. Except when it isn't. It's an adventure movie with no climax. It's a movie whose big set piece involves a dragon with an impacted colon.
The most disappointing thing about Dolittle, though, is its star. Me, I've been a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. since Less Than Zero. My personal favourite Robert Downey, Jr. performance? Glad you asked. Check out Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. He has never been better. Anyway, even at his laziest, he turns on the charisma and the charm and the confidence and it's almost supernatural. The audience ignores when he isn't on set with his co-stars, counting on technology to drop him into scenes. They ignore when he is obviously being fed his lines on an ear piece. We ignore it because he is always original and captivating and, again, the supernatural charisma and charm and confidence. But this performance in Dolittle has shaken my faith in RDJ. He is more charismatic in the marketing materials than he is at any point in the movie. His confidence seems shaken. The charm is weakened. I don't know if it's because of the movie's chaotic and troubled production. I don't know if maybe he made a deal with a gypsy woman back in the 80s and the price has come due. But Dolittle is centred around a performance that is just not there. His Dr. Dolittle is one part Johnny Depp in the later Pirates movies twitch and one part nearly indecipherable mumbling accent.
Look, if you really want to watch a guy named Dr. Dolittle talking to animals movie, watch the 1998 Eddie Murphy movie or its sequels. Did you know there are 5 movies in that run? Yep, 5. Or you could check out the 1967 Rex Harrison movie. Of course, that one has more animal abuse and off-screen and on-screen racism and singing than is generally comfortable to be around. But, hey, still a better time than this new Dolittle. It's not that Dolittle is a truly awful movie. It's just, well, disappointing. And kinda dull. And it's m'eh.