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Dolittle Review

January 17, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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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 whit 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. However, he’s soon broken 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 for their home and animal sanctuary to help the queen. If she dies, their deed to the manor will become null, and both Dolittle and the many animal friends who call the estate home will be evicted. The milquetoast Stubbins is quickly enthralled with Dr. Dolittle and resolves himself to become the man’s apprentice.

Upon examining the queen, Dr. Dolittle diagnoses 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 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 his own expedition to thwart the doctor and his companions.

It’s plain to see why Downey would be attracted to the role of Dr. Dolittle. He plays him as an eccentric, quirky, rarified not dissimilar from a Sherlock Holmes. Not to mention, when executed the right way, there can certainly be something very special about the bond Dolittle has with his animal friends. He likely wanted to make a movie that could 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 I’m told is supposed to be Welsh. Or rather, it’s 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 a believable sincerity. Harry Collett’s Stubbins is just not very believable. He goes from getting trapped in a net in one scene to wanting to become Dolittle’s self-proclaimed apprentice in the next.

Granted the fault of the actors’ performances has to also be partially laid at the feet of director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan, who some almost 20 years ago won an Academy Award for his writing work for the film Traffic. Gaghan clearly does not have a knack for this material. The film is filled with antics, jokes and dialogue with the animals that’s at clear odds with the time period. It appears that these animals characters and their dialogue 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 really land or are even that funny. Gaghan’s direction and dialogue are so banal, trite and hackneyed, it’s almost enough to wonder how he was able to manage to win an Academy Award some years back. Perhaps directing is simply not where his expertise is best put to use, and it spreads his writing work thin.

The few moments where the film almost comes to life are the hints of a better story. Specifically, that of the courtship between Dolittle and his late explorer wife, Lily, who is also the daughter of an outlaw king, King Rassouli (Banderas). 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’ve been done with this character and that subplot. There’s almost a sense that Dr. Müdfly wants to better understand and communicate with animals as well. Sadly, like most of the film, it basically ends with a large thud.

The best that can be said in favor of the new Dolittle is that it’s 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 isn't enough to rescue this new adaptation of Dolittle from the dregs of awfulness. Stephen Gaghan isn't able to really elevate this type of material or really bring it to life. The film is filled with wall-to-wall gags, but none of them are really funny or they are 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.