Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon. Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward? I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge. That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.
By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously. Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal. Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.
If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters. A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019. Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic. Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.
Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect. It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.
With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals. It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals. He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce). Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.
Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court. It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure. After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree. Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.
For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time. There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct. Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle. The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper. They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create. Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie. The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.
Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels. Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place. What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious. He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.
Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point. Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given. At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within. I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…