Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, John Cena, Harry Collett, Marion Cotillard, Frances de la Tour, Carmen Ejogo, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Tom Holland, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Craig Robinson, Octavia Spencer, Emma Thompson
Runtime: 1 hr 41 mins
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 16 January 2020
Synopsis: After losing his wife seven years earlier, the eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), famed doctor and veterinarian of Queen Victoria's England, hermits himself away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor with only his menagerie of exotic animals for company. But when the young queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) falls gravely ill, a reluctant Dolittle is forced to set sail on an epic adventure to a mythical island in search of a cure, regaining his wit and courage as he crosses old adversaries and discovers wondrous creatures. The doctor is joined on his quest by a young, self-appointed apprentice (Dunkirk's Harry Collett) and a raucous coterie of animal friends, including an anxious gorilla (Oscar(r) winner Rami Malek), an enthusiastic but bird-brained duck (Oscar(r) winner Octavia Spencer), a bickering duo of a cynical ostrich (The Big Sick's Kumail Nanjiani) and an upbeat polar bear (John Cena, Bumblebee) and a headstrong parrot (Oscar(r) winner Emma Thompson), who serves as Dolittle's most trusted advisor and confidante.
Stephen Gaghan’s re-imagining of the classic character gifted with the ability to talk to animals brings it back to its storybook origins, where Dolittle is a famed doctor veterinarian in 19th-century Victorian England. Based on the second of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books, ‘The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle’, it follows the doctor on a quest to a mythical island to find a cure for the Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has been poisoned by the conniving Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and Dolittle’s enemy Doctor Mudfly (Michael Sheen).
That quest is also intended as emotional closure for Dolittle, whom we are told in the animated prologue had secluded himself behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor following the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) seven years ago. Not only does Dolittle have to come out of hiding, the mission also requires him to retread Lily’s fateful voyage, before she was lost in a storm out at sea. It also gets personal for Dolittle in other ways, including having to come face to face with Rassoulim (Antonio Banderas) and the ferocious tiger Barry (Ralph Fiennes).
Not that much of it matters; in the hands of director and co-writer Gaghan, ‘Dolittle’ is little more than a series of frantic set-pieces under the guise of a swashbuckling adventure. That freneticism is also as a result of a whole menagerie of animals which Dolittle brings along on his voyage – including an insecure gorilla (Rami Malek), a bouncy polar bear (John Cena), a quarrelsome duck (Octavia Spencer), and a wise macaw (Emma Thompson) – that are constantly fighting for attention and screaming over each other in order to be heard.
Each scene is as messy as you can imagine, with little point except to create enough distraction to keep the younger ones among the audience entertained with the non-stop bickering. Worse, these non-human characters seem to be all over the scene at the same time, often either eclipsing Dolittle or making him seem utterly inconsequential. It doesn’t help that there is little depth to each one of the non-human characters, even with a whole bunch of Hollywood A-listers assembled to give them voice, especially since they are simply given one single defining trait and nothing more.
Much of the blame unfortunately lies with Gaghan. The Oscar-winning writer of such geopolitical fare as ‘Traffic’ and ‘Syriana’ seemed to us an odd choice to direct such a special-effects heavy family movie when he was first attached, and the results prove that he is truly and completely out of his league. Not only are the jokes unfunny, the action is terribly unexciting and uninvolving, and not even the purportedly late salvage attempts by ‘TMNT’ director Jonathan Liebersman and ‘The Lego Movie’ writer Chris McKay can turn around what is essentially a misguided movie from the very start.
As much as we like RDJ, there is only so much the charismatic actor can do with such an underwritten role. Though the plotting promises a poignant journey for Dolittle coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife, that proves to be no more than a convenient device in the scheme of the overall narrative, raised only when expedient to remind us that there is more to the man than his eccentricities. Oh yes, it should come as no surprise that RDJ brings his trademark playful yet confident air to the character, but even that is no match for the sheer commotion that follows him around the entire movie, no thanks to the incessant cacophony of his animal companions.
Much bad press has preceded the release of ‘Dolittle’, and unfortunately those rumours aren’t simply speculation. There is frankly little charm to this feverishly chaotic movie, which seems modelled after the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series but is hardly able to muster the same idiosyncratic appeal. It is little secret that ‘Dolittle’ aims to create a new franchise for RDJ after ‘Avengers’, but we can’t see why anyone would want to put themselves through this headache-inducing muddle again. As unlikely as it sounds, we’d take the Eddie Murphy movies over this anytime.
(Busy, messy and yet utterly uninvolving, this latest imagining of Dolittle is a witless, charmless and soulless 19th-century action adventure that even RDJ's charm cannot save)
Review by Gabriel Chong