Dolittle Movie Review: This film does very little
If not for certain moments, the film is an exhaustive watch that fails to tick any of the right boxes for why one would have to leave the comfort of their houses to visit their nearby theatre
Don’t ask me why I remember this, but it was said that actor Rex Harrison, who played the first Doctor Dolittle in a live adaptation, had a sheep urinate on him for a scene in the 1967 musical. Now, of course, it’s 2020, and we have Robert Downey Jr. playing the titular role and not having to endure anything close to what his predecessor did, thanks to CG creatures taking over the role of his co-stars. The problem is, the rest of the cast and crew of Dolittle don’t seem to have really sweated for their parts, resulting in an uninspiring take on author Hugh Lofting's books. Unlike the 1998 Eddie Murphy-starrer Dr Dolittle which was set in San Francisco, this film, in order to stay faithful to its source material, is set in Victorian England. Our beloved and eccentric vet who has the amazing ability to converse with animals has locked himself up behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor after the death of his wife, Lily Dolittle. Conflict comes in the form of Queen Victoria falling gravely ill, leading him to set on a perilous seafaring adventure to find a cure. While the one-liner might remind us of some of Hollywood's best expedition films, it’s unfortunately a tougher journey for us than it is for Dolittle.
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen,
Emma Thompson, Rami Malek
While Stephen Gaghan, who got an Oscar for scripting Traffic, is credited as the director, the film underwent extensive reshoots, supervised by director Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and writer Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie). Even the title got changed from The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, a reference to one of Lofting's creations. The film feels like an incoherent mishmash of ideas. Downey Jr., strangely, is unable to channel his charisma for this role, and instead, seems to be brooding over his end in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He also can't seem to stick to one accent. It’s a film that has trouble getting even the basics right. The emotional connect of seeing Murphy's Dolittle trying to be a better person for a family and society that fails to understand him, is missing here. Here, our hero, a character akin to a James Bond or Ethan Hunt, is on a mission; the gadgetry is replaced with the cast of Attenborough's wildlife documentaries. Even the CG, elemental to such a genre, feels inconsistent. Dolittle also joins the ignominious list of films that simply did not warrant a 3D version.
The voice-acting cast has a stunning list of A-listers (Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard), and yet, most of the jokes don’t land. It's notable that a lesser-known comedian, Jason Mantzoukas, who voices for James, a wisecracking dragonfly, is the best of this illustrious lot.
A few sequences, such as the one where Dolittle communicates with a whale to navigate his ship, do stand out. One of the first scenes, where he uses white and black mice as chess pawns, make for some of the film's most original and creative ideas. Another sequence where Dolittle shoos away the young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) who wants to apprentice with the doctor, reminded me of a scene from Iron Man 3 where Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) tries to join Tony Stark in his adventures. There is also a hilarious set-piece involving a colony of ants with its head resembling Vito Corleone from The Godfather. Most of the animals featured in Dolittle have a distinguishing feature which should have made for more comedy. For example, Malek's Chee-Chee, the gorilla, is extremely anxious. John Cena's Yoshi is a polar bear who is always cold and quarrels with Nanjiani's Plimpton, a cynical ostrich who wears stockings. Perhaps the film should have just stuck to focussing on such cutesies instead of the laboriously convoluted quest Dolittle instead undertakes.
Despite some fleeting entertainment, the film is an exhaustive watch that lacks wit and purpose. Apparently, Hugh Lofting wrote stories around the Doctor Dolittle character for his children while hiding in trenches during World War 1, choosing not to write about the brutality of the war. A story that has such moving origins, doesn’t deserve such a meek adaptation.