Released: 16th January
Seen: 20th January
The Doctor Dolittle character first came to life in 1920 with the release of the book The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. The book, and subsequent series of companion novels, told the story of Doctor John Dolittle who has learned to talk to animals and uses that knowledge to go on several great adventures. This idea was destined to become a movie so it comes as no surprise that in 1967 a musical was created. That musical cost 17 million and ended up making 9 million, it had the production from hell that included racism, Rex Harrison being a dick and ducks forgetting how to swim. Naturally, the property would end up abandoned until 1998 when a new Doctor Dolittle movie was made that starred Eddie Murphy. This new version was a success financially and got average reviews but it’s still fun… but it’s also, notably, one of the last good films Eddie Murphy made until his recent resurgence with Dolemite Is My Name. Basically what I’m saying is that the Doctor Dolittle franchise is a career killer and I now seriously worry about just what’s going to happen to Robert Downey Jr because the man just appeared in the worst version of the Dolittle story that’s been put on film.
Dolittle has a very basic plot, which is fitting for a very basic movie. Dr John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) is depressed after the death of his wife who died from a shocking case of “Being a woman in a family movie”. During his great depression, Dolittle is summoned to save Queen Victoria who has fallen gravely ill under mysterious circumstances that are so obviously suspicious that anyone should’ve started checking the pockets of everyone who ever saw her to try and find vials of random poisons. Naturally, the only cure for what ails her is a mysterious fruit that can only be found on an island no one has ever found. So, Dolittle gets on a boat with a bunch of animals and a stowaway named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) who is Dolittle’s apprentice because of some reasons. They go off to find the fruit, get into mishaps, tiptoe up to the line of potential racism, fist a dragon and then the movie ends and everyone gets to go home 7 hours later… that’s how it feels anyway.
Dolittle is a film that does little. Of anything, It’s not even trying to be good, and if it is trying that’s almost sadder than if it was just being lazy. From the horrific CGI abominations that look like they want to murder the audience at any time to the bizarre performance choices by Robert Downey Jr, who is shockingly off his game here, nothing about this film works. The visuals might have worked if the film had maintained the animated style of the prologue, but once you use the combination of real actors and CGI animals the entire thing just falls apart. None of the animals looks acceptable, each one jarringly standing among the real sets and looking like they were ripped right out of a child’s nightmares. The animals don’t even behave in a tonally consistent way, the parrot might behave close to an actual parrot while the polar bear is basically a giant cartoon character. The only interesting thing about each of the characters is who they got to do the voices but after a few minutes of thinking “Hang on, did they just make Spider-Man talk about how much he loves butts?” it starts to dawn on you how none of the characters has anything resembling an actual character or arc.
Let me just expand on that arc idea. On a very technical level, Dolittle’s story is about accepting that he has to work with people again after the loss of his wife… which he gets over within about 15 minutes, he barely even objects to the stowaway on his boat. Stubbin’s “arc” is about becoming Dolittle’s apprentice, which he also does in about 15 minutes just by brute-forcing it into existence, and then does basically nothing of substance for the remainder of the movie. You can do this for almost every character, their entire arc is solved in 15 minutes (if they even have a noticeable character arc) and then they just go through the remainder of the film on pure inertia. It doesn’t help that no one is interesting enough to care about, they’re either blank slates with no actual character to care about or they’re cartoonishly over the top with no actual character to care about.
It becomes very obvious that the majority of this film’s 175 million dollar budget was spent on its elaborate A-list cast and once it had that cast they decided that none of them should have anything to do that makes them interesting. Tom Holland is relegated to voicing a dog who pops up when we cut back to the queen and has exactly zero good jokes (also, why hire Tom Holland to be in the RDJ movie if you’re not going to have the two of them share the screen and milk the audiences memory of loving the Iron Man/Spider-Man relationship? Hell, make Tom voice a spider who lives in Dolittle’s pocket, how was that not the first thing you thought of?). Rami Malek is a giant baboon named Chee-chee and I swear I spent the entire film thinking that the voice was Taron Egerton’s, and also wishing there were jokes for this character to tell. I had a similar problem with John Cena’s character, who I believed was being played by Seth Rogen. These voices have so little character that they could’ve all just been voiced by random day players to have the same effect… oh wait, silly me thinking the point was to get voice actors to fit the roles. No, see this film is banking on you, the potential audience, liking one of the 12 different celebrities they spent an irrational amount of money on so you’ll go to see it because you’re a huge fan of Kumail Nanjiani (and after that recent photo showing how buff he is now, I don’t blame you) and you won’t care about the actual film. It’ll be good because the person you like is in it, I say this as someone who has watched and proclaimed love for so many movies starring cast members of Buffy so I understand this impulse. It’s the same trick that Lil Dicky pulled with his Earth song, just get a bunch of famous people to voice animals and if you do that then you don’t need to worry about quality control.
The worst element of this movie, sadly, is Robert Downey Jr who needed this movie to remind everyone that he’s more than just Tony Stark. He hasn’t had to play anyone else for 5 years now so he needed to be good in this and you can tell he was going for something. He was trying to pull a Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribean, making a bold choice that feels out of left field but would still work… except, Johnny created an iconic character and Downey created burnt toast. The accent is just horrific, the look is a mess and nothing about the character is interesting or understandable. He’s not quippy or funny, there are several moments where he just seems bored with the entire movie which is the only thing the audience can relate to. We know Downey can be the most charismatic human being when he wants to be, an entire cinematic universe was basically created off the back of “Downey Jr is so damn charming” but maybe he just used up his supply of charm because there is none here.
Granted, he’s not being helped by a script that doesn’t know what audience it’s going for. Is it going for little children with its abundance of slapstick and fart jokes? Is it going for a teenage audience by (badly) mixing its 1800s setting with modern-day slang like “Snitches get stitches”? Is it going for an older audience who remember vaguely remember reading the book and enjoying it and want to relive it? Trick question, this is a movie for no one. The childish slapstick is almost always linked to a joke that’s just flat out not appropriate for children, the slang is abrasive in how out of place it is and the plot is so mangled and poorly told that any book lovers are just going to be disappointed. The plot is just a torturous mess that doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of where it’s going and gets so far off course that the climax of the film involves fisting a dragon in order to complete the quest… If I can even jokingly use the term “Fisting” to describe the ending to your film, you have messed up so badly that I can’t even begin to think of how you would fix it. Maybe just stop adapting the Dolittle books since no one has ever done a version of it that’s even above mediocre. How about that? Just stop.
Dolittle is a mess of a film starring actors who should know better with a script that knows nothing. It isn’t trying to sell you on a good story, it’s hired a bunch of big-name actors who you know and like in hopes that you will be stupid enough to spend the money required so you can say you heard John Cena voicing a polar bear. It’s just not a good movie by any real stretch of the imagination. I know some people are going to say that you should look at this through the eyes of a child and it will be more fun… children deserve better than this. Just because it has bright colours, explosions and actors saying things in a tone that implies they were making a joke doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. Children aren’t stupid and shouldn’t have a film treat them like dolts because the film can’t be bothered to try anything that’d actually resemble being creative or fun. It’s a demonstrably awful film in every way and the people involved should start looking into hiring a new agent if they were told that this was a good idea.