Director Stephen Gaghan’s magnificently designed and photographed DOLITTLE, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. John Dolittle --- the man who can talk to animals --- is a huge --- SNOOZE. Gaghan also co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from Hugh Lofting’s “Doctor Dolittle”, with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, so he has no one to blame but himself. Remember --- it’s all about the writing.
The screen story by Thomas Shepherd lacks excitement and imagination for the kids. And there is nothing whatsoever for the adults who must accompany those little ones. To make matters worse, the two child leads, Harry Collett, who plays Dr. Dolittle’s newly acquired apprentice, Stubbins, and Carmel Laniado as Lady Rose, are not particularly endearing.
DOLITTLE is a low-energy tale of John Dolittle’s battle with depression following the death of his lovely, adventurous wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak). He has closed up Dolittle Manor, where he still resides as a hermit with his merry band of exotic animals. Lady Rose has been dispatched by Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) to fetch Dolittle to cure her mysterious and deadly illness. If she dies, Dolittle Manor will become a thing of the past and Dolittle, along with his furry friends, will be homeless.
At her bedside, Dolittle encounters Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a former classmate, who has been tasked with healing the terminally ill queen. Dolittle, through the aid of his faithful hound, Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), determines that Queen Victoria can only be saved by a certain flower from a special tree on a mythical island, which is home to a fire-breathing dragon.
Dolittle, Stubbins and his menagerie of animals must sail to this island and find the cure post-haste to save the queen from an untimely death. It’s not a great premise, but it could have been fleshed out better --- infused with a great deal more humor. It’s incredibly boring --- and definitely not entertaining.
Not even Antonio Banderas, who plays Pirate King Rassouli, can liven up DOLITTLE. He does his absolute best, as always, but, as I have stated many times, an actor can only do so much with the dialogue/script they’re given. And unfortunately for Banderas, who should have been outstanding in a role such as this, the screenplay doesn’t afford him the opportunity.
As I mentioned, DOLITTLE is gorgeous to look at thanks to the Oscar-winning director of photography, Guillermo Navarro (PAN’S LABYRINTH, 2006) and production designer, Dominic Watkins. But a stunning backdrop, along with exceptional visual effects by two-time Academy Award-nominated Nicolas Aithadi, do not make a wonderful moviegoing experience. And, alas, a stirring score by Danny Elfman cannot elevate DOLITTLE’s entertainment value.
I’m always amazed by how many times writers rely on flatulence for laughs. In DOLITTLE, the dragon has gastrointestinal distress caused by devouring too many foreign objects. The big laugh riot is supposed to be Dr. Dolittle removing these items, and nearly being blown away by the power of the flatulence --- and the odor.
Seriously? Can we please stop this nonsense and use our imaginations more productively?
And one more thing which really bothers me is Downey Jr.’s age. It turns out that Rassouli is Lily’s father --- and Banderas (59) and Downey Jr. (54) are contemporaries. This is Downey Jr.’s film, so is he just too old for this role --- or is he simply trying too hard? Rex Harrison played Dr. Dolittle in the 1967 version when he was 59, so it might not be the age thing. Any way you look at it, though, DOLITTLE is not worth a trip to the theater.
Opinion: Mild Wait for DVD
When you look at the roster of actors in DOLITTLE, it’s hard to imagine why this movie is so unsatisfying. Consider these names: Robert Downey, Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent --- all accomplished stars who play human characters.
Now consider these names: Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard --- all established stars who handle the voiceovers of the animals in DOLITTLE.
Multiple Oscar-nominee composer Danny Elfman’s music is the best part of the movie. That’s because the dialogue which all these players are provided is inherently weak and uninteresting. And part of the problem is Downey Jr’s Welsh accent, which is frequently unintelligible, this despite hiring a Welsh accent coach.
The CG effects that allow the animal characters to speak are not the problem with DOLITTLE. When the writing --- director Stephen Gaghan is one of a group of three --- is this dull, it’s hard to sustain moviegoers’ interest, let alone have them immersed in the story.
One small sequence stands out when Dolittle (Downey, Jr.) distracts Barry the tiger (Fiennes) from eating him by using a mirror. And like all cats, Barry becomes enthralled with the light, chasing the moving target like a kitten. It’s one of the few truly amusing moments in this movie.
Producers Joe Roth and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum have their own production company, Roth/Kirschenbaum Films, and they have been working to bring this version of Hugh Lofting’s “Doctor Dolittle” to the big screen for many years. This team also gave the world MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL which was my worst film of 2019.
Opinion: Very Mild Wait for DVD