Principal Cast : Robert Downey Jr, Harry Collett, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Carmel Laniado, Kasia Smutniak, Ralph Ineson, Joanna Page, Voices of Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Jason Mantzoukas, Frances de la Tour, Scott Menville, Will Arnett.
Synopsis: A physician who can talk to animals embarks on an adventure to find a legendary island with a young apprentice and a crew of strange pets.
Dolittle might have been a film you’ve heard about: reviled by critics upon release, the first Robert Downey Jr vehicle to arrive post-Endgame landed with a fur-covered thud and a load of vitriol. I admit, the trailers looked particularly bad and I had zero interest in ever seeing it, but upon hearing my kids return from a school outing to see it and raving about it, I figured not only was it my parental duty to witness what had been inflicted upon my offspring but also to justify the absolute carnage heaped upon it by my online reviewing brethren. Dolittle, a new version of the classic literary story by Hugh Lofting, sticks with a child-friendly formula involving talking animals, bloodless adventurism and sells itself as yet another CG-driven spectacle that doesn’t really warrant the level of hatred directed at it.
An animated preamble tells the story of the bereaved physician Dr John Dolittle (Downey Jr), whose wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) tragically drowns at sea. In his grief, the Doctor shuts himself off from society and learns to communicate with animals in their own language. Many years later, the good doctor is forced out of retirement to see to a gravely ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who is being secretly poisoned to advance the prospects of Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and Dolittle’s college rival, Dr Blaur Müdfly (Martin Sheen). To save the queen, Dolittle, together with newly recruited apprentice Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and an assortment of animalia, must travel across the ocean to find the mysterious Eden Tree, from which it is said the fruit borne there can heal any illness and even revive even the dead. On their voyage, Dolittle eventually runs into his wife’s father, Rassouki the King Of Pirates (Antonio Banderas), who wishes revenge on Dolittle for the death of his daughter.
Dolittle has one significant problem working against it. Before we get to that, however, let’s talk about the good things. First, the film isn’t as bad as you may have heard it is. It works as a well-intentioned kids flick, a breezy, cheesy quest film filled with quirky characters and animated excitement, not to mention the inexplicably innumerable megastars providing voices for the on-screen animal talent. It’s a Stuart Little-level affair, really, nonsensical in and of itself but entirely enjoyable whilst it’s in motion. The production design is astonishing, the action sequences are legitimately exciting and for the most part the visual effects are commendably valid, even if they’re nowhere near the kind of work we saw in films like The Lion King or The Jungle Book. There’s a sprinkle of modern humour betwixt the Victorian England period setting (bless him, but Eddie Murphy’s modernised version worked nowhere near as well for all its updated aesthetic) that doesn’t always work but the zany animation, frantic editing and enthusiasm with which everyone here seems to approach the material more than make up for the majority of the film’s deficiencies It’s a kids film, not a film to be appreciated for nuance by adults.
Obviously, though, we need to tackle the film’s chief detraction. Sadly, that honour goes to Robert Downey Jr himself, or rather his absolutely awful accent and persona. I’m not sure what language he was speaking half the time but not only was it annoying as fuck, it was incredibly hard to work out what he was saying – and this is a film involving a guy able to speak multiple animal languages! Downey Jr appears to be trying to play a kind of “mad doctor” routine, a zany, glib, offhanded routine dulled by a lack of purpose and driven by a rapidly declining empathy the audience has with him. I’m all for following a man tormented by his wife’s death across the globe but why does he talk like he’s got a mouth full of marbles and a brain full of scrambled eggs? Downey Jr’s John Dolittle is an awful, hideous representation compared to Rex Harrison’s far more straight-laced essaying in the original 1967 film (speaking of which, where was the Pushmi Pullyu??) and even Eddie Murphy’s formulaic representation. To be frank, Downey Jr was easily the worst part of the film, an inflated ego trip masquerading as come clownish good-natured intellectual as redundant to his own adventure as you can get. I hated him in this, and I don’t say that lightly.
The rest of the cast are honestly forgettable in terms of what they bring to the film, from Harry Collett’s prodigious animal love apprentice, to Antonio Banderas’ snarling King Rassouli, to Jim Broadbent’s cheek-wobbling British aristocrat. But doing God’s own work in this film is Michael Sheen at his campy, jester-smile best. The man can play villainous comedy like no other (anybody see him in the Underworld franchise?) and he absolutely goes for broke as the unabashedly dastardly Dr Müdfly, a man who holds Dolittle in such high contempt that he will stop at literally nothing to end him. All teeth and snarling one-liners, Sheen is undeniably great in what is a shockingly poor role for the actor, but he goes at it with such admirable gusto you kinda can’t help but like him moreso than the title star!
I’m not defending those who abhorred this film – look, it could have been better, sure, but it’s no The Brothers’ Grimsby – and I will certainly admit the film has a limted rewatch value for discerning adults, but your kids will love it. The animals are all cheeky and cool (voiced by the likes of Tom Holland, Octavia Spencer and, naturally, Emma Thompson) and the film has a sweet heart buried within the CG elements, so for that I can recommend it on the strength of its moral standards alone. The single caveat for me was Downey Jr, who was awful, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from sitting down with the kids for a movie night across the seas with Dolittle.