We've made it to 2020, and it comes with good and bad. The good news is I haven't been kicked off of this site yet! The bad news is...we're in January.
Actually, that's a bit harsh, January is traditionally known as the dumping ground for movie studios, the films that they don't think have enough buzz or recognition to be able to stand on their own in the rest of the year's marketplace. While we've gotten our fair share of forgettable projects in the aftermath of holiday and awards season, January in the last number of years seems to be building a bit of faith within release dates, to the point where I still keep an eye on it expecting some kind of gem in the rough (last year's 'The Kid Who Would Be King' was example enough of that hope).
Thus, we turn our attention to 'Dolittle.' In a twist of events that must be new to none of you by now, I am not familiar with either of the past incarnations of Doctor Dolittle (the 1967 Rex Harrison version or the 1998 Eddie Murphy film). Rather, I was interested in 'Dolittle' for a lot of the same reasons a lot of other people were; the seemingly infinite name-brand voice cast and seeing what Robert Downey Jr.'s first major role in the aftermath of his decade-long journey as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going to entail.
I haven't liked all of the marketing thus far, but the first trailer had a lot of promise and having 'Syriana's Stephen Gaghan directing seemed like an interesting move, so is the result the kind of fun, lighthearted fare we were promised?
Sadly, not really, at least not for me. 'Dolittle' isn't the train wreck/garbage fire hybrid you might have feared, but above the lacking humor, ill-paced story, and bare minimum commentary, its biggest crime is that it just isn't very memorable. It wasn't so much that I loved or hated certain aspects of the film, it was just that I was struggling to remember what those moments actually were.
We're introduced to Doctor John Dolittle (played by Robert Downey Jr.), who lives in London with his wife, Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak), running a sanctuary for animals authorized by the Queen. When Lily goes on a voyage and is lost at sea, Dr. Dolittle closes the sanctuary, becoming a hermit only surrounded by his animal compatriots. Seven years later, a young man named Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett) accidentally shoots a squirrel and comes across Dolittle's sanctuary in the woods, who agrees to help him. They are then greeted by Lady Rose (played by Carmel Laniado), the ward of a sick Queen Victoria (played by Jessie Buckley), who asks for their help.
Dolittle deduces that the fruit of the mythical Eden Tree could save the Queen's life, so he reluctantly takes Stubbins on the voyage with him. They are accompanied by Dolittle's animal companions - the parrot Poly (voiced by Emma Thompson), the gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), the ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), and the polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena) - all while being pursued by the nefarious Dr. Blair Mudfly (played by Martin Sheen), a rival doctor in the Queen's inner circle.
'Dolittle' actually starts out interesting enough, between Dolittle's seemingly maddening state in isolation and his interactions with Stubbins and Lady Rose. I actually found some fair comparisons to 2017's 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,' between the period setting, the focus on young, new characters and the familial bond we start to get between. But it starts to very quickly delve into that films worst tendencies fairly quickly, going towards the tempting light of attempting visual spectacle, but in the process removing any of the charm or attention that flair can get from us as an audience.
The film's story, though not completely devoid of adventurous spirit, feels incredibly messy when it comes to stakes. We're never actually told how sick the Queen is, but we're told we don't have much time. You'd think between all the stuff going on, there'd be some actual sense of urgency to Dolittle and Stubbins's journey, and the film seems much more concerned with kooky animal hijinks than actually moving our plot along. The film has opportune moments to give us some sort of insight into animal abuse or seeing animals with human emotional traits, and the fact that we consistently get surface-level context is quite disappointing.
Speaking of the humor, it's pretty bad. I think the one huge laugh I got was from a line from Kevin the squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson), but even his shtick starts to get old after a few lines. That seems to be a recurring attribute to these animals; shtick. Rami Malek's Chee-Chee is always on edge, John Cena's polar bear is the daredevil, Kumail Nanjiani's ostrich is self-centered, and that's pretty much the basis of every one-liner we get out of their mouths. The one exception might be Emma Thompson as Poly, who at the very least gets to be our portal into Dolittle's relationship with Lily, but even there, the script is so concerned with moving from one thing to another that we can't identify with these animals with the capacity our protagonists do.
Those protagonists are actually some of the few things I liked about the film. As odd as it is for me to say, I actually quite liked Robert Downey Jr. as Doctor Dolittle. It's not that he's delivering an iconic, emotionally driven performance (he isn't), but I think I appreciated it because he's not just trying to play Tony Stark again, he's actually trying to be a bit more eclectic, anti-social, and off-key. It certainly doesn't always work, but he's a good enough performer to make the character likable and can at least drive a few of the jokes home.
Harry Collett also makes a pretty good apprentice figure for the doctor, even if he does seem a bit lost in all the CGI at times, and Lady Rose, while I wish she could've been a more prevalent character, is distinct and fun enough to carry her own. There's also the film's bizarrely excellent intro sequence, which is approached as a storybook-like animated backstory (think 'Beauty and the Beast's intro). I remember when the film switched into live-action thinking "wait, why would you show us this? This looks fantastic, why didn't we just do an animated Dolittle?" It almost makes the entire choice of a live-action context feel calculated on being able to make CGI animals, which are simply not the magic tricks studios seem to think they are.
If you're looking for a fun, family film with some solid humor and star power attached, yeah I definitely think 'Spies in Disguise' is a fine enough time at the mov- oh wait I was talking about 'Dolittle' wasn't I? At the end of the day, this movie is forgettable, and when it is memorable, it's a mess that only makes me ask "how" more than "why." Robert Downey Jr. will be just fine after this, Stephen Gaghan will be just fine after this, and the character of Doctor Dolittle will live on in the minds of millions has he has for the last century. But this adaptation is just not the excitement I wanted, and I hate when the January curse wins.
Overall, I give 'Dolittle' 3/10.
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