September 28, 2020

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Dolittle does little to impress

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/1/2020 (254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


This absolute disaster of a live-action adventure is bad in the way many formulaic kids’ movies are bad. It’s lazy and pandering, simultaneously over-packed and under-filled.

But Dolittle is also bad in an unexpected way. For a big expensive studio picture, this would-be family comedy is terrible at a very basic level, demonstrating a gob-smacking level of incompetence in shooting, editing and integrating computer-generated effects. In the simple matter of telling a story using moving pictures, Dolittle is a film-school fail.

There have been several reboots of the charming Hugh Lofting children’s books from the 1920s, including a 1967 musical adaptation with Rex Harrison and a modernized comic franchise starring Eddie Murphy in 1998.

Going back to the original 19th-century English setting, this version stars Robert Downey. Jr. as John Dolittle, an eccentric doctor who can talk to animals. Dolittle lives with a mouthy menagerie of elephants, ducks, bears, giraffes and gorillas but has shunned the society of humans since the death of his wife.

Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Doctor Dolittle is as incompetent as the rest of this cinematic disaster. (Universal)

Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Doctor Dolittle is as incompetent as the rest of this cinematic disaster. (Universal)

He is dragged out of retirement when the young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) — whose royal patronage keeps the animal refuge running — is taken ill. Dolittle embarks on a sea voyage to find a magical curative plant, with the help of his eager human apprentice, Stubbins (Harry Collett), and a collection of oddball creatures.

That seems like a pretty rudimentary plot — How hard should it be to send the good doctor on a journey to save his queen? — but the scripters (including sitcom scribes Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, Thomas Shepherd and director Stephen Gaghan) still fall into incoherence.

The narrative stops and starts and skips erratically. Characters come and go for no reason. There seem to be traces of original storylines later dropped, along with desperate last-minute additions meant to patch things up. This is a full-length movie that often feels like a random collection of outtakes.

Downey’s name presumably helped get this movie made. As a star who can radiate real charisma, he might be expected to ameliorate Dolittle’s awfulness. But no, Downey is actually the epicentre of that awfulness. Not only does his half-hearted Welsh accent wander all over the place, but his whispered dialogue actually sounds dubbed. There are moments of forced whimsicality and antic weirdness, as if Downey is channelling the worst kind of Johnny Depp performance. And there are scenes where Downey loses interest completely and lapses into sheepish evasiveness.

Michael Sheen is having some fun as an aristocratic villain fizzing with impotent rage (though it’s possible the Welsh actor is just inwardly seething about Downey’s mangled accent). Antonio Banderas is excellent but underused as an extravagant pirate king.

There are scenes in Dolittle where Downey loses interest and lapses into sheepish evasiveness. (Universal)

There are scenes in Dolittle where Downey loses interest and lapses into sheepish evasiveness. (Universal)

Some of the voice actors for the computer-generated animals manage to raise themselves above the general morass, including Kumail Nanjiani as an anxious ostrich, Jason Mantzoukas as a self-deluding dragonfly and Emma Thompson as Poly the parrot. (That half-star rating is almost all for the warmth and bracing commonsense of her voice).

But since the script is more interested in cheap gags (bro jokes, fart jokes, "That’s gotta hurt" jokes) than real characters, most of the celebrity vocal actors add marquee value and not a lot else. Why hire Marion Cotillard to voice a French fox and then give her perhaps four lines of dialogue (one of which is "Vive la resistance")?

Some reviews have taken the approach that Dolittle’s apathy and incompetence don’t really matter because it’s "just" a kids’ movie. That seems like an unbearably cynical notion, one that ignores the wondrous possibilities of good children’s entertainment.

Dr. Dolittle, in books and movies, has always taken a stand against animal cruelty. Let’s not start associating him with cruelty against children. This misbegotten mess is better forgotten.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography


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