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Dolittle Review

January 17, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Dolittle Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios
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Dolittle Review  

Directed By: Stephen Gaghan
Written By: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, and Thomas Shepherd
Runtime: 101 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language

Robert Downey Jr. – Dr. John Dolittle
Martin Sheen – Dr. Blair Müdfly
Antonio Banderas – King Rassouli
Jim Broadbent – Lord Thomas Badgley
Jessie Buckley – Queen Victoria
Harry Collett – Tommie Stubbins
Carmel Laniado – Lady Rose
Jessie Buckley – Queen Victoria
Kasia Smutniak – Lily Dolittle
Emma Thompson – Poly
Rami Malek – Chee-Chee
John Cena – Yoshi
Kumail Nanjiani – Plimpton
Tom Holland – Jip
Octavia Spencer – Dab-Dab
Craig Robinson – Kevin
Ralph Fiennes – Barry
Selena Gomez – Betsy
Marion Cotillard – Tutu
Jason Mantzoukas – James the Dragonfly

Fresh off concluding his run as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr. follows it up with a flaccid, execrable re-adaptation of the Hugh Lofting children’s books Doctor Dolittle. Instead of providing a fun, whimsical romp, this half-baked adventure story is dull, boring and lacking any charm or wit that you’d expect a story about a man who talks to animals would have.

In the 2020 update of Dolittle, the good doctor, John Dolittle (Downey) has grown reclusive after his beloved explorer wife Lily (Smutniak) was lost at sea. Dolittle is shaken from his isolation by the arrival of Tommie Stubbins (Collett), who wishes to get help for a squirrel he shot by accident, and young Lady Rose (Laniado), who wishes for Dr. Dolittle to treat Queen Victoria (Buckley), who is gravely ill. Dolittle is loath to help, but his macaw companion Poly (Thompson) convinces him it’s in the best interest of their home and animal sanctuary to help the queen. If the Queen dies, Dolittle’s deed to the manor becomes null and void, evicting Dolittle and the many animal friends who call the estate home. The milquetoast Stubbins is quickly enthralled with Dr. Dolittle and resolves to become the man’s apprentice.

Upon examining the queen, Dr. Dolittle concludes that the only medicine that can save her life is a rare fruit from the Eden Tree; a mythical tree that can only be found on an uncharted island that no one has ever discovered in recorded history. Poly and Dolittle’s other animal friends help Stubbins join Dolittle on his expedition into parts unknown. However, there are forces at work who would rather the Queen not recover. Dolittle’s former sinister class colleague, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Sheen), leads a separate expedition to thwart the doctor and his companions.

It is plain to see why Downey would be attracted to the role of Dr. Dolittle. He plays him as an eccentric, quirky, rarified individual not dissimilar from Sherlock Holmes. When executed properly, the special bond Dolittle shares with his animal companions can be magical. Downey likely wanted to make a movie that would cater to his sensibilities along with something for small children to enjoy. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to this character than Downey acting eccentric and quirky, complete with a muttering accent that is supposedly Welsh. Or the accent is Downey’s version of a quasi, vague, inconsistent imitation of a Welsh accent.

Dolittle’s would-be apprentice, Stubbins, is blander than stale bread. Most of the cast are relatively cookie-cutter and lacking in believability. Harry Collett’s Stubbins is just not convincing. He goes from getting trapped in a net in one scene to wanting to become Dolittle’s self-proclaimed apprentice in the next.

The fault of the actors’ performances has to be partially laid at the feet of director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan, who does not have a knack for the material. Dolittle is filled with antics, jokes, and dialogue by the animals that are at clear odds with the period. The animals characters and their dialogue sound like they were ripped from a trashed sequel script to a third Eddie Murphy Dolittle movie and were repurposed here.

Most of the animals who are voiced by famous actors or prolific performers sound American and have very contemporary voices. None of their jokes land or are even that funny. Gaghan’s direction and dialogue are executed in a banal and hackneyed fashion. Perhaps directing is simply not where his expertise is best put to use, and it spreads his writing abilities thin.

The few moments where the film almost comes to life show hints of a better story. The courtship between Dolittle and his late wife Lily, who is also the daughter of an outlaw king, King Rassouli (Banderas), looks like it would have been a far more compelling story. Interestingly enough, Martin Sheen’s Dr. Müdfly had what amounted to the film’s most amusing moments, where he appears to try and communicate with the animals himself. It seems more could have been done with this character. There is also a sense that Sheen possibly would have been a more inspired casting choice as the Dolittle character. Sadly, like most of the film, Dr. Müdfly’s subplot ends with a thud.

The best that can be said in favor of the new Dolittle is that the film is tame and inoffensive. Can parents take their children to see this film relatively worry-free? Yes. But even the Eddie Murphy Dolittle was more entertaining than this.

The final score: review Bad
The 411
Not even Robert Downey Jr. hamming it up and acting eccentric and weird is enough to rescue this new adaptation of The Story of Doctor Dolittle from the dregs of awfulness. Director Stephen Gaghan struggles with bringing this type of material to life. The film is filled with wall-to-wall gags, but none of them are funny, or they are woefully out of place. Is this a film that children might enjoy? Yes. But it's plain to see why the studio banished this film to January. The writing was on the wall that this Dolittle doesn't walk with the animals or talk with the animals like he should.