On one hand “Dolittle” seemed like the kind of family movie primed for success. It was based on a once beloved children’s book series. It featured talking animals, a grand adventure, an enormous and talented cast, along with a popular lead actor known for his charisma and wit. On the other hand there were causes for concern – numerous delays and development woes, a so-so first trailer, and of course the dreaded January release date.
It turns out the box office wasn’t kind to “Dolittle”. It fell well short of its break-even estimates. Critic reactions haven’t been much better (it currently sits at an abysmal 15% on Rotten Tomatoes). So the movie along with its $175 million budget sank fast as did its obvious franchise aspirations.
It’s a shame because the very idea of Dr. Dolittle is the kind of childlike fantasy that almost any youngster can latch onto. History proves it. Creator Hugh Lofting wrote over twenty books and short stories based on the animal loving eccentric. There have been stage musicals, a radio series, television shows, and movie adaptations. But this latest effort from director Stephen Gaghan never seems sure-footed in its vision or execution.
Robert Downey, Jr. stars and it’s hard to tell just how engaged he really is. He soaks his dialogue in a funky Welsh/Scottish accent that you eventually get used to despite it never sounding quite right. Set in the mid-19th century, the movie starts with the good doctor in full recluse mode: shaggy, unkept, and brokenhearted following the death of the love his life Lily. Unable to cope, he has shut himself off from humanity, choosing to stay confined in his walled-in estate/animal sanctuary. Fluent in every form of animal-speak, Dolittle chooses to spend his time with his furry, feathered and four-legged friends rather than those pesky humans.
His closed-off existence is rattled when two young teens seek his help for much different reasons. A tenderhearted local boy Stubbins (Harry Collett) brings a squirrel in desperate need of medical attention. The cause – Stubbins accidentally shot it himself. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), an emissary from the gravely ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), brings a message summoning Dolittle to the dying royal’s bedside. The Doctor reluctantly agrees and after examining his Majesty surmises that the only cure comes from the fruit of the mysterious far-away Eden Tree. But finding it will be no easy task.
So Dolittle sets sail to find the tree but first he rounds up his amazing zoo crew voiced by a star-studded group of Academy Award winners, comedians, wrestlers, and singers. Emma Thompson plays a Macaw, Rami Malek a gorilla, Kumail Nanjiani an ostrich (my favorite), Octavia Spenser a duck, Tom Holland a studious dog, John Cena a polar bear, Marion Cotillard a fox, Selena Gomez a giraffe, and so on. And tagging along against the Doc’s wishes, young Stubbins who is determined do be Dolittle’s new apprentice.
Hot on their heels is Dr. Blair Müdfly, an old rival of Dolittle with a vested interest in the Queen’s condition. He’s played by a wildly over-the-top Michael Sheen who does provide a much needed laugh or two. He’s rarely funny as a result of the material. It’s comes mostly from simply watching Sheen and his wacky, neurotic delivery. It certainly provides more laughs than the animal banter (which we get a TON of). Outside of Nanjiani, whose laidback pessimism lands well, none of chatter leaves much of an impression. The voice work is good, the dialogue – not so much.
“Dolittle” isn’t a total disaster. Downey, Jr. has an infectious manic energy and the actor’s inherent likability is an asset. The CGI is generally well done including the many animals and the locations. And later we get Antonio Banderas as an evil Jack Sparrow-like king along with his ferocious tiger played by Ralph Fiennes. How could that be bad? But none of it can make up for for the movie’s biggest issue – its lack of any emotional resonance. You can count on one hand (and have fingers to spare) how many times the movie actually shows some form of feeling.
The similarities between “Dolittle” and the original 1967 movie adaption are striking. That film starred Rex Harrison in what was (as with Downey, Jr.) a peculiar choice for him. Its plethora of production issues have been well-documented plus it too ended up taking a beating at the box office. While “Dolittle” might be a slightly better movie than Harrison’s mess, it’s still hard not to see this as a sad case of history repeating itself.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS