Dolittle is clearly meant to be Robert Downey Jr.’s next franchise after stepping down from his decade-long run as Tony Stark, but whether or not it’s up to that task is up for debate. The film has a warm, frenetic energy that is sure to delight the children in the audience, and it certainly enough source material to choose from if it had sequels. But the quality of the content doesn’t hold up as well as the splashiness of its visuals.
Loosely based on the second novel in Hugh Lofting’s series, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle“, Universal’s first outing makes a few changes to the animal-loving Doc’s backstory. Certain things, like the death of his beloved wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), seem designed to humanize him and add some much-needed weight to the proceedings. But the death of a beautiful, mysterious woman who takes the sunshine with her when she goes is a rather well-worn and unnecessary trope. Plus it doesn’t jive with the lighthearted tone of the rest of the flick, anyway.
Backstory aside, the plot itself hangs together by a thread that at times doesn’t know how to sew everything together. Essentially, the young and isolated Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) granted Dolittle use of a mansion in which to care for his animals, but now she’s dying – poisoned? – and unless the good Doctor travels the world in a very few days to save her life, he and his animals will lose the land.
Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) is the messenger who brings this bad news to him, but it is through Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and his efforts that Dolittle is roused enough from his depression to save the day. It shouldn’t be too difficult a task, aside from the fact that the flower he’s after is mythical and only his wife knew the location, but he’s also made an enemy of Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) and must avoid his shenanigans during the journey. Oh, and let’s not forget King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who’s also out to get the infamous veterinarian for reasons that eventually become the crux of the tale.
Dolittle‘s A Mess, But It Has Fun Being One
As you might gather, the film is something of a jumble of interconnected plots that doesn’t let any of them breathe properly. That is mostly fine, because it’s easy to lose oneself in the delightful tribe of animals and vocal performances.
But once again, the overexaggerated single-trait personalities of the creatures point to a story made for kids. Every animal serves one purpose, such as Emma Thompson as the wise parrot Polly, Octavia Spencer as the bossy goose Dab-Dab. Or else they engage teaching one life lesson, such as Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena) and Plimpton the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani) learning to be friends despite their differences, or Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek) overcoming his crippling fear.
As long as you sit back and enjoy the bickering, though, you’ll have a good time. And one animal in particular stood out as having some sort of duality: Kevin the squirrel goes from meek and trusting to suspicious and vengeful with the addition of Craig Robinson’s voice. His vlog of vengeance is the perfect accompaniment to the chaos that surrounds most of Dolittle.
The human performances are as good as they can be, given the paper-thin characterizations. Laniado and Collett develop a sweet onscreen bond despite their limited scenes together, and if there’s a sequel Lady Rose should absolutely join in order to turn the duo into a trio. Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, embodies the eccentric genius in every way… minus the accent. Or rather, it’s not that his Welsh(?) accent wasn’t good, but rather that it was distracting. Aside from making certain scenes harder to understand, it also sometimes needed to be re-recorded in rather obvious ways.
Nevertheless, Dolittle is chock full of new characters for children to enjoy as well as touching moments for them to reflect. And what it lacks in nuance for the rest of the audience, it makes up for in cameos of both the voiceover and in-the-flesh kind. The film will be released in theaters on January 17th, 2020 with a runtime of 106 minutes and is rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language.