Directed by Stephen Gaghan.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Carmen Ejogo, Frances de la Tour, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Ralph Ineson, Harry Collett, Carmel Laniado, Kasia Smutniak, Joanna Page, and Jason Mantzoukas.
A physician discovers that he can talk to animals.
There is no reason for this revitalization of Dr. Dolittle to exist (simply titled Dolittle) and it has nothing to do with Hollywood bringing back to life anything they can for a quick buck. If anything, a studio blockbuster about an animal veterinarian that can converse with them makes sense to release in a time where veganism is on the rise and animal rights are taken more seriously than ever. Meanwhile, director Stephen Gaghan (also serving as one of numerous writers, explaining away the disjointed nature of the proceedings) seems to only care about employing lowbrow talking animal humor that scrapes the bottom of the barrel (if you have any interest in seeing this version of Dolittle because there’s a dragon in the TV spots, I’m telling you right now, nothing good comes from that sequence).
Robert Downey Jr. himself is a fine choice for what should ideally be a caring jokester tending to the well-being of various animals, but it’s like the screenwriters never saw any of the 700 Marvel movies. It shouldn’t be that hard to give him some passable quips to deliver during conversations with animals, especially with a ridiculously impressive voice cast containing multiple Oscar winners and all-around major names (Rami Malek, John Cena, Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer, Ralph Fiennes, and more). Instead, we get the goofiest accent imaginable and idiosyncrasies that don’t really add anything to the character. For clarification, he doesn’t need to be Tony Stark, but a little of that snark and charm would feel appropriate here.
Admittedly, Dolittle starts off well enough with an animated introduction briefly detailing the doctor’s love for animals, how he met his wife Lily, snippets of their journeys making long-standing animal friendships (that lend a helping hand throughout the actual voyage), and finally, the untimely tragic demise of his wife alongside the depression it causes, resulting in him closing his doors off from humans so he can live out a life of isolation and seclusion with his trusted companions. After some time has passed, young Tommy Stubbins (Henry Collett) is pressured by his father (The Witch‘s Ralph Ineson) to become a hunter, where the boy always intentionally decides to miss shots but this particular time around accidentally injures a squirrel. Knowing about the legacy of Dolittle, Tommy decides to bring the squirrel to the doctor’s home (which is now less colorful due to both the live-action transition and to represent his gloomy state of mind).
Along the way, he encounters Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), bearing the sad news that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley, just about the only wonderful actor that comes away unscathed from this disaster) has fallen deathly ill. Not only is she seeking Dolittle to diagnose the illness and provide a remedy, but if she does pass, apparently he will lose ownership of his home as it was originally a gift for helping out the Queen (there’s a bunch here that’s not as clear as it should be, but it’s also to be expected considering how many characters and side plots are crammed into 105 minutes).
Naturally, Dolittle is reluctant to help anyone, but after some shenanigans pretty much force him into extracting the bullet from the squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson, who gets maybe two of the only five or so laughs in the movie), the rest of his homemade animal kingdom convince him to assess the situation. This also leads to the only useful scene as far as understanding the language of animals goes, as Dolittle is able to perform his own investigation by asking animals what they saw or heard before the Queen went unconscious. It’s a tiny glimpse of what could be done with the concept, but why do that when having a guard dog drag his ass across the floor in an act of securing the perimeter is far lazier and easier to write.
All of the jokes are corny, but some are truly embarrassing; at one point a gorilla fights a tiger and is declared victorious after knocking him out by kicking him in the testicles. So not only is the movie terribly unfunny, but it’s also a mess when it comes to modern-day animal politics (I don’t think the audience for Dolittle is coming to see the beasts battle one another like Pokémon). That still might not be as bad as the awkward relationship he does have with his animal friends, which borders on servitude (they get him dressed, do some shaving, and some other things that have nothing to do with professionalism toward saving lives).
The human characters are blank slates, and that includes Tommy who can also understand animals and refines that ability over the course of the movie. There’s also a rival doctor played by Martin Sheen who is completely over-the-top, screaming every line as the maniacal dastardly villain. What’s initially intriguing is that in the beginning there is an emphasis on the Rami Malek-voiced gorilla suffering from anxiety, an actual character that the plot might do something interesting with. However, it’s not long before he fades into the background like everything and everyone else (including Antonio Banderas who shows up as Lily’s grieving thief father). It’s John Cena that is actually best in show, voicing a polar bear that is both friendly and brotastic; any time he opens his mouth to say or do something, that elusive feeling of family fun is mildly felt
Arguably a larger issue then the atrocious comedy on display is how boring the adventure is. It’s a voyage to find a hidden island and magical tree, yet it somehow all feels tedious. The washed-out color palette doesn’t exactly make the visuals appealing, the action set pieces are subpar (and for some reason occasionally claustrophobic which leads to nightmarish incoherence), and the teased interaction with a dragon is a massive letdown. No amount of scenery-chewing from Robert Downey Jr. or familiar voices can make Dolittle even remotely passable; it’s a disaster.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com