January 17, 2020 Dolittle (Movie Review)
January is an interesting time for movies. With the tumult of awards season in full swing, studios drop big-budget offerings that often fall flat. On Friday, January 17th, Universal Studios and Director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana 2005, Gold 2016) release Dolittle in an attempt at a family-oriented January blockbuster. Starring Robert Downey Jr. in his first major role since moving on from his decade-long run as Marvel’s Iron Man, Dolittle is a sweeping adventure tale about a quirky veterinarian in Victoria’s England who can speak the languages of animals.
In this re-imagining of Hugh Lofting’s beloved book series, Dr. John Dolittle (Downey Jr.: Iron Man 2008, Sherlock Holmes 2009), a once renowned explorer and veterinarian, has locked himself away on a swath of land gifted to him by the Queen of England.
Following the death of his wife at sea, he now keeps only the company of his animal friends, including Chee-chee the anxiety-ridden gorilla (Rami Malek: Mr. Robot series, Bohemian Rhapsody 2018), Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena: Trainwreck 2015, Bubblebee 2018), Dab-Dab the goose (Octavia Spencer: The Help 2011, Ma 2019), and Poly the Parrot (Emma Thompson: Love, Actually 2003, Saving Mr. Banks 2013). Although, when kind-hearted hunter Stubbins (Harry Collett: Dunrick 2017, Casualty series) and Queen’s emissary Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado: A Christmas Carol mini-series) enter his life, Dolittle and company discover that they must embark on a journey to an uncharted island to find a magical fruit to save the Queen’s life—and the sanctuary they call home.
The story is about as convoluted and ridiculous as it sounds, but it has a few saving graces. Michael Sheen (The Queen 2006, Masters of Sex series) as the mustache-twirling villain Blair Mudfly steals every scene with his toned in pantomime. Despite his being the Big Bad, Sheen is criminally underused. Oh, and Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro 1998, The 13th Warrior 1999) is a swaggering pirate king who wears a lot of eye makeup. Downey’s performance, on the other hand, is difficult to pin down. To be fair, the majority of his acting is against animation, and there is only so much that can be done when giving a cartoon dragon a colonoscopy. Downey has proven that he can play just about any role, but why he decided to take on—and even executive produce—this film is a bit of a head-scratcher.
One glance at the star-studded cast or massive set pieces says that Universal clearly spared no expense with Dolittle, but a stronger script could have done wonders. The plot jumps about at alarming speed and with a disconnect that is tough to get past. Just when you think the story might be treading into some depth or character development, it takes a step in a completely different direction with no explanation. Characters and plot points are either introduced only to never be seen again, or ham-fistedly reference at every opportunity. We get it, your wife is dead and you’re sad.
Dolittle may be the very definition of surface level, but it is not entirely without charm. The animation is solid, and often does look as though the animals are in the scene with their human counterparts. With a cast full of Academy Award-winners, it should come as no surprise that the voice over work is entertaining. Despite how far-fetched and disjointed the story is, it is a sweet adventure tale that may spark an imagination or two.
There is little doubt that Dolittle will be universally panned by critics, but if you go into the theater expecting a cute family film then you may not be entirely disappointed. For all of its flaws and odd choices, Dolittle is quite a charming story at times with excellent visuals that will likely please a younger audience, and perhaps even a few adults out there. For the reasons, Crytpic Rock gives Dolittle 2.5 out of 5 stars.