Dolittle (2020) Review
I’M NOT A PRISONER OF FEAR,
BUT THIS MOVIE IS!
The tales of Doctor Dolittle have certainly been wonderous and promotes good heartedly family adventures by taking an individual who can speak / communicate with varying types of animals on journeys that have captured the imagination. Created by author Hugh Lofting, the character of Doctor John Dolittle was first introduced to the world in the literary format, with Lofting releasing the children’s book titled “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” in 1920. The book, which was deemed a success, inspired Lofting to write more adventures of Dolittle, with numerous written sequels published to further continue the adventures of the eccentric-animal speaking character. Even after Lofting’s death in 1947, several more Dolittle novels were released, with many being mostly completed by the author. Given the success of the books and the creative narrative premise, it was almost a forgone conclusion that Hollywood would eventually come around to adaptation Lofting’s literary character to the big-screen, which was first realized in 1967 with the release of Doctor Dolittle. The film, which starred Rex Harrison and Richard Attenborough, received mixed to negative reviews during its theatrical run and only made $9 million at the box office against its $17 million production. Strangely, Doctor Dolittle was nominated that year at the Oscars for Best Picture as well as Best Original Song and Best Visual Effects (it won for Best Original Song and Best Visual Effects). Flash forward to the late 90s and Hollywood once again took interest in Lofting’s Dolittle character and released the film Dr. Dolittle in 1998. The movie, which starred Eddie Murphy as Dolittle, updated the material and took a more modern-day approach for the film’s setting and aesthetics; allowing voice talents to voice the various characters that the good doctor interacts with. Both critics and moviegoers praised the movie and Dr. Dolittle was a success, with a follow-up sequel (Dr. Dolittle 2) being released in 2001 as well as three DTV (Direct-to-Video) releases (i.e Dr. Dolittle 3, Tail to the Chief, and Million Dollar Mutts). Now, Hollywood again returns to Lofting’s Dolittle material for another cinematic adaptation of the character who can speak to animals as Universal Pictures and director Stephen Gaghan present the film Dolittle. Does this movie find adventure and fun within Lofting’s iconic character or is it just a disastrous mess of the feature?
Gifted with the ability to where he can speak to animals in their own language, Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) was granted a special sanctuary by Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), making a home for various bestial patients, later joined by his adventurer wife, Lily. When Lily dies during one of her dangerous journeys, Dolittle is destroyed, allowing his property to fall into despair and shutting himself from the outside world. Arriving at the front gates one day is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young boy, who accidentally hurt a squirrel and is in need of help. Arriving at the same time as Tommy is Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who informs Dolittle that the Queen is dying and needs his help. Reluctantly pulled out of his depression by his animal pals, including his trusted bird friend Poly (Emma Thompson), Dolittle rides to the palace and offers hope for a cure, sharing information on the healing powers of the Eden Tree, located on a hidden island. Setting sails on the high seas, Dolittle reluctantly brings Tommy along for the quest, along with Polly, Yoshi (John Cena), a polar bear, Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), a gorilla, Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), an ostrich, and Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), a duck. However, the villainous Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) is in hot pursuit of Dolittle, looking to steal the fruit of the Eden Tree for himself.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
To be honest, I never read (or heard of) Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle novels until very much later in life. I know…I read a lot of the “classic” novels (the young reader’s editions) throughout my childhood, but never came across hearing about the adventures of the man who could speak to animals. In truth, my first introduction to the “famed” fictional doctor was when my grandparents should me the 1967 film Doctor Dolittle. Even though I knew it was a bit dated (I saw it sometime during early 90s), especially when compared to the movies I saw during that time, I still thought it was still a pretty good movie for its time and was filled with creativeness and fun. My second iteration of Dolittle was (of course) the 1998 movie Dr. Dolittle, which did have plenty of memorable one-liner moments that I can still recite to this day. I did like how it “updated” the premise to modern age (again, speaking to a modern audience) and Murphy (as well as many of the voice talents that played the voices of the animals) deliver some comedic presence in the film. It wasn’t a complete knockout of a film, but was still a worth interpretation for the late 90s family friendly fanfare. The 2001 sequel was okay-ish as I didn’t love it as much as the first one and I didn’t even know that there were three DTV spin-off films based on the 1998 film until I did this review. Though…I can probably imagine that they were from the mediocre offering.
Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Dolittle, a 2020 new theatrical version of Lofting’s fictional character of Doctor Dolittle. In truth, I really didn’t hear much about this movie, which was originally going to be called The Voyage of Dr. Dolittle and then shortened to just Dolittle, as I really didn’t hear much on the announcement of it nor the cast that was attached to this project. To be even more honest, I really know about the project’s existence until they released the film’s movie trailer a few months back. Judging from that, the film looked promising as I do like Downey Jr. as an actor (not just as Ton Stark / Iron Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the movie certainly did boast plenty of other recognizable voice talents that (much like the 1998 Dolittle) would be providing the voice for the animals. Plus, the character of Dolittle was certainly overdue (almost ripe) for another Hollywood adaptation, especially with the bountiful new and popular Hollywood actors to participate on the feature and the new technology made in filmmaking. So, despite it not being on my official “movie radar” for some time, I was curious to see Dolittle; hoping that the project would be a good and wholesome family friendly endeavor. And what did I think of it? Well, it definitely had the potential for something fun and magical, but comes up empty handed. Despite a star-studded cast, Dolittle just ends up being a haphazard mess of family friendly motion picture that can’t break the mold of being wholesomely generic from start to finish. Kids will probably like it, but not everyone else.
Dolittle is directed by Stephen Gagan, whose previous directorial works includes such films like Abandon, Syriana, and Gold. Given his background in the industry (Gagan is also a writer as well) and more focused in crime drama endeavors, Gagan makes Dolittle his first foray into the realm of children’s entertainment; producing his most “whimsical” entry in his directorial catalogue. In that regard, Gagan succeeds; approaching Dolittle with a sense of “kid friendly” atmosphere and carving out a film that’s meant for the whole family to watch….in whimsical and silly way. Thus, I’m sure young viewers out there will probably enjoy this movie or so than the adolescent / adult viewers will. Coinciding with that measure, Gagan certainly makes the movie feel very much like high-spirted kid’s fantasy adventure, with the film’s story having all the classic trope adventure story, including a young boy, an eccentric main protagonist, a wide cast of various characters, a quest for a magical item, various places and destinations, etc. So, all the right ingredients are all there, which does make Dolittle have fun (if not straightforward) narrative that certainly is right up there with some entertaining adventure tales. Heck, if I was eight years old, I would be completely enthralled in Dolittle. I mean….at the age…. who doesn’t love an adventure story? All in all, even if the movie falls short (in a lot of areas), Gagan still finds a fun kid’s friendly rhythm in Dolittle; capturing a spirit of child-like adventure. Plus, the feature has a sweet story about connections with others and finding the courage within yourself to help others, which is extrapolated in a variety of characters in the film (some a little bit more than others).
In terms of visual presentation, Dolittle is sort of solid endeavor that meets the industry standards for a movie like this. Visually speaking, the film is ripe for a kid’s adventure film, with plenty of locales and places that look quite “enchanting” and have that storybook quality of appeal from Dolittle’s sanctuary estate (including his clutter-filled exteriors), to the whimsical seafaring decks aboard his ship (i.e. Water Lily…named after his late wife), to the Middle-Eastern / fantasy-esque of the pirate infested Isle of Monte Verde (where King Rassouli resides), and so on and so forth. So, from that standpoint, the movie looks quite good and I really have to give a lot of credit to the art direction team for creating a lot of the conceptual art and overall style for the movie. This, of course, also brings up a lot of the movie’s other “behind the scene” departments, including Dominic Watkins (production design), Lee Sandales (set decorations), and Jenny Beavan (costume designs). Additionally, the cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, while not exactly the best, still provides plenty of fun and striking camera shots and nuances to make certain scenes / events in Dolittle certainly “pop”. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Danny Elfman, is pretty solid and definitely fits the movie’s kid friendly presentation in every scene. Good soundtrack score.
Unfortunately, Dolittle fails more than it does in impressing viewers with its cinematic tale; offering up of a messy slapstick journey than a wholesome and entertaining adventure. As mentioned above, the film’s visual appeal play a contributing part in the movie’s narrative; bring to life various locations as well as many of the various animals that Dolittle comes into contact with. However, while these characters do certainly have a strong “flair” to the story being told, the actual rendering of them is a bit iffy at best. Visually speaking, the effect shots for most of the animals look mediocre and a bit dated. Some close-up shots definitely work, but other times (well…for most of the film) is quite obvious that all the animals are digitally created and having various human actors (mostly RDJ) interact with them. Unfortunately, this is even made worse when you compared a lot of the film’s visual effect shots to other visual heavy feature films of late, including Alita: Battle Angel, Lion King, and Avengers: Endgame. I mean…2019’s Lion King projected photorealistic “national geographic” visuals for rendering its animal characters and, while I wasn’t expecting that in Dolittle, it definitely would’ve been a welcomed one indeed. All in all, the variety of animals are quite adventurous and are definitely a fun bunch, but their digital CGI rendering is quite dated and dull.
In the storytelling department, Dolittle fails within this category and, while it does have an adventurous feel within its narrative, it never strides to be something grand in either scope and scale. In truth, the movie is simply messy and haphazardly put together, with plenty of fragmented pieces and expositional dumps that are tossed into the mix; making the flow of Dolittle quite unbalanced at best and thinly presented at worst. Perhaps this is the result of Gagan’s direction, which frames the feature in a very generic and straightforward family film adventure that, while it has plenty of storytelling elements that are familiar, never really find their way into making those particular elements their own in the film’s storytelling. So, it’s pretty much the “same old, same old” of family adventure romp, which there is nothing wrong with, but then the movie needs a certain “hook” and, with the exceptional of its expansive recognizable cast, Gagan offers little in elevating Dolittle’s presentation beyond the standard formula of a kid’s family movie endeavor, with plenty of predictable moments and very few surprises along the film’s journey.
Again, it’s kind of easy to see that Gagan, who again makes Dolittle his first family adventure film, isn’t quite up to the task of helming a project like this, with a messy storyboard idea and a very rushed narrative progression. What do I mean? Well, with the film’s runtime of 101 minutes (one hour and forty-one minutes), Dolittle certainly runs on a good and solid length, but lacks the finesse and execution of which Gagan fails to do so. There are plenty of moments throughout the film where the story never truly comes alive and lacks substance within this fantastical world. As mentioned with the film’s story / plot, Dolittle and friends go off on a voyage to find a lost island in search of magical item. That basic premise certainly has a fantasy adventure aspect, with plenty of episodic mini-adventures (that create the bulk of the narrative) for the various characters to traverse through (be it obstacles or plot progressions). Unfortunately, Gagan doesn’t really do that with the movie as Dolittle feels incredibly rushed and forgoes that voyeuristic adventure nuance for more character-based humor and jokes and that’s truly disappointing. Even the film’s climatic ending piece feels quite underwhelming. The movie’s problems also filter into the feature’s script, which was penned by Gagan as well as Dan Gregor, Doug Maud, and Thomas Shepherd, which keeps the film restricted (and kept rather small) on its narrative path. Plus, the movie’s narrative seems quite simplistic and sporadic throughout as if the something was dropped (sequences and storytelling moments) from the final cut. Perhaps this happened when the film went back for several weeks of reshoots (supervised by Jonathan Liebesman and Chris McKay, after Dolittle was test screenings yielded poor results. To me, I think was part of the problem. Basically, think of Dolittle as the equivalent of Disney’s 2018’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms; finding both movies to be visually heavy in effects shots, a talented cast, but seriously lacking storytelling substance and very rushed narrative progression.
Coinciding with that, the film’s script comes up short with a lot of its comedic jokes and gags. Some do certainly work, which is mostly due to the acting talents speaking said comedy dialogue, and not so much of the script handling, but most of the jokes and gags are rendered as child-based ones (again, I do understand that this is a kid’s movie), but even some of these dialogue comedy moments comes off as a bit forced and fall flat. What’s made even worse is that some of the additionally ADR (additional dialogue recording) for the movie (again, the movie went under reshoots for several weeks), is quite glaring and obvious when utilized. It works a few times, but definitely overstays its welcome with a bunch of blaring dialogue that seemed to be added in the film’s final stages (i.e. final editing process); slapping it altogether in a messy way and trying to get “the most” out of its celebrity voice cast. Additionally, as a side-note, it’s kind of odd to hear all of these animal characters use modern slang and terminology, with the film being set during the Victorian-era of England.
The cast of Dolittle is filled to the brim with plenty of recognizable actors and actresses attached to this project and is certainly one of the big highlights for seeing the movie. However, despite that promise, the movie’s celebrity talent can’t help elevate much of these characters….be it major or minor ones. Headlining the feature (naturally) is actor Robert Downey Jr, who plays the film’s main protagonist character of Doctor John Dolittle. Known famously (nowadays) for his role as Tony Stark / Iron Man in Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters as well as his previous roles in Chaplin, Sherlock Holmes, and The Soloist, has certainly proven himself to quite a capable actor; drumming up a likeable charm and theatrical screen presence through his career (even through his low points in his life). So, coming off his “exit” from the MCU after doing Avengers: Endgame, it’s quite clear that RDJ wanted to try something a little bit different and (perhaps) something more whimsical kid-friendly feature. Thus, Dolittle gives him that chance to project that eccentric playfulness in a character like John Dolittle, with RDJ playing up those inane quirks to the fullest and committing himself to the character persona throughout the film’s runtime. However, the characterization that RDJ projects into Dolittle is a combinational fusion of his portrayal of Sherlock from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies (i.e. having a low, raspy sound voice that mumbles a lot) and a taking some mannerism / eccentric character cues from actor Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Thus, the results of his performance of John Dolittle is more of mimic of those two rather trying to put his own character thespian stamp on it; rendering the film’s main characters a bit of a “copycat” of other eccentric individual movie characters of the past. It’s quite clear what both RDJ and Gagan want the character to be, but ends up being a hodgepodge that doesn’t quite work. Still, RDJ is amusing in the role of Dolittle, but I just wish that that there was a more “spin” on the character than what was presented.
Fair slightly better in the role is Dolittle’s main antagonist villain character of Dr. Blair Mudfly, who is played by actor Michael Sheen (The Queen and Frost / Nixon). Like Downey Jr., Sheen is quite a capable and multi-talented actor who has certainly played various character roles throughout his career and certainly makes his portrayal of Mudfly to be more of the comical variety. Yes, despite his villainy of trying to out best Dolittle, the character of Mudfly is pretty much a moustache twirling cartoon-ish bad guy that, while is quite predictable from onset to conclusion, Sheen is fully committed to the role and hams it up with great ease. However, as far as villains come (even ones in kid’s movies), Mudfly is boring and not quite memorable. As a more secondary / minor role, the other “human” character that looks fully committed to the role in the movie is actor Antonino Banderas (The Mask of Zorro and Once Upon a Time in Mexico), who plays the character of Rassouli, the king of pirates who makes his home on the Isle of Monti Verde. I mean the character of Rassouli is pretty much a straightforward and formulaic bad guy, so there’s really no mystery to the character in any way, shape, or form. However, Banderas certainly nails the character, with his physically appearance and costume wardrobe attire. Heck, I would’ve love to see Banderas’s Rassouli be the main antagonist more so than Sheen’s Mudfly.
Faring much less in the movie is the character of Tommy Stubbins, a youthful boy who joins Dolittle on his adventures throughout the movie, who is played by young actor Harry Collett (The Hive and Casualty). Despite the movie promoting the character of Tommy as the sort of “wide-eyed” youth of this adventure, the character just basically ends up being side-track for great lengths; acting as the “entrance point” for us (the viewers) to get entangled into Doctor Dolittle’s menagerie of animals and the adventurous escapades that follow. Plus, Collet’s performance doesn’t do much to elevate the character’s flaws and overall flatness, which (again) makes Tommy Stubbins that much more inconsequential to Dolittle’s story. Likewise, the side character of Lady Rose, a close confidant / friend to Queen Victoria, is pretty much another inconsequential character in the movie that has a strong setup in the beginning of the movie, but ends up getting sidelined for most of the film. Plus, like Collett, young actress Carmel Laniado (A Christmas Carol) does little to invigorate the character from being thinly written. Furthermore (and maybe this is just me), why does Queen Victoria (the presiding monarch ruler of England) have a young kid as her close confidant / friend. I know that this is a kid’s movie and all, but come on…. least be serious here.
The rest of the cast (of the human cast at least), including Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl and Fargo) as Queen Victoria, actor Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Moulin Rouge!) as Lord Thomas Badgley, one of the Queen’s closest advisor, and actor Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones and Ready Player One) and actress Joanna Page (Love, Actually and From Hell) as Harry’s parents (Arnall and Bethan Stubbins), make up the rest of the characters in the movie. For the most part, these characters are extremely minor and don’t make a whole lot of impact on the feature, except for a few narrative bits. Still, at least the acting talents in this category are fine…. just not memorable ones (even at a minor capacity).
The rest of Dolittle’ cast is compromised of the plethora of recognizable / famous voice talents that provide the voices of all the animals in the movie (be it part of Dolittle’s company or other bestiaries that they come across). Unfortunately, most of these animal characters (along with their voices) don’t exactly work, which is combination of the iffy visual effects for the rendering of the animals and the mismatching of the voice talents. Perhaps the only one that actually truly works the best in the movie is the character of Poly (aka Polynesia), a wise and headstrong macaw parrot and Dolittle’s most trusted advisor, who is played by actress Emma Thompson (Late Night and Sense and Sensibility). Thompson certainly gets the character of Poly down pat and has the “best fit” in the vocal department to match the on-screen macaw parrot. The same can be partially said over actors Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Jason Mantzoukas (The House and Big Mouth), who play the characters of Barry, a ferocious gold-tipped fang tiger, and James, a wisecracking dragonfly, who certainly make their respective characters come alive with the distinct voices.
Everyone else, including actor Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody and Mr. Robot) as Chee-Chee, an anxious gorilla, former WWE wrestler / actor John Cena (Blockers and Playing with Fire) as Yoshi, an upbeat polar bear who wears a bashlyk, actor Kumail Najiani (Stuber and The Big Sick) as Plimpton, a fussy / cynical ostrich who wears stockings, actress Octavia Spencer (The Help and Hidden Figures) as Dab-Dab, an enthusiastic and crazy duck with a metal leg, actor Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spies in Disguise) as Jip, a loyal dog to Dolittle who wears glasses, actor Craig Robinson (Hot Tub Time Machine and This Is the End) as Kevin, a squirrel with revenge attitude, singer / actress Selena Gomez (Hotel Transylvania: Summer Vacation and Wizards of Waverly Place) as Betsy, a friendly giraffe, actress Marion Cotillard (Inception and Allied) as Tutu, a fox who is friends with Betsy, actress Carmen Ejogo (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and It Comes at Night) as Regine, a lioness, and actress Frances de la Tour (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Into the Woods) as Ginko-Who-Soars, a fire breathing dragon, are just subpar in the respective roles. Of course, the movie had certain comical quirks to these characters (i.e. Yoshi and Plimpton constantly bickering to each other, Kevin’s “Star Trek-esque” captain’s log monologues, Chee-Chee’s attempts at showing bravery, Dab-Dab’s wisecracking remarks, etc.), which some of these do work, but most of them just feel too forced and seem like the acting talents improvising their trademark personas and not so much in bringing these characters to life. Again, this goes back to the dialogue handling criticism remark that I mentioned above. Way too much ADR inclusions of additional voice dialogue.
To save the queen, Dr. John Dolittle and his animal friends embark upon a journey to find a cure in the movie Dolittle. Director Stephen Gagan’s latest film takes Lofting’s eccentric animal talking literary character and presents it in an adaptation that certainly feels enjoyable and exciting; displaying a kid friendly feature that will entice young viewers out there. Unfortunately, despite the whole fun “spirt of adventure” premise and a star-studded cast, the movie is rendered formulaically generic due to a lazy script, an uninspiring / rushed direction, overstuffed with too many characters, and iffy (if not mediocre) visual effects. Personally, it was disappointing experience for me. I think I liked it a little bit better than most movie critics out there (some are really giving this movie a really bad rep), but it was still painfully sad to see such a fun / amusing get squandered in such a flat and generic way. I could’ve written up a better fantasy adventure for Dolittle and friends to go on, while still working in the parameters of kid’s family friendly atmosphere arena. Such a shame. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is definite “skip it” as there’s plenty of other kid-friendly movies out there worth seeing than this, with plethora of better story, characters, laughs, and moral lessons to be learned along the way while viewing the feature. Just stick with the 1998 version. You’ll get better mileage out of it (definitely). While the movie certainly had the potential for being a start of franchise of sorts, which I would’ve loved to seeing if the film was done right, the poor / negative reception that the movie was receiving seems like clear indicator that a potential sequel installment will never get off the ground. In the end, Dolittle winds up being a dissatisfying (and otherwise forgettable) children’s movie; coming up short of the pure imaginative spirt and fantasy adventure that it so desperately wants to be.
2.3 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: January 17th, 2020
Reviewed On: January 20th, 2020
Dolittle is 101 minutes long and is rated PG for some action, rude humor, and brief language