Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Dolittle is another attempt at rebooting a property for a family adventure. Granted, Doctor Dolittle has been portrayed in a musical and an Eddie Murphy comedy before this, so it is pretty different. It casts a popular star, surrounds him with a talented cast, a lot of effects, action and goofy humor. Sometimes, the adventure approaches being fun. At others, it is messy and derivative. As a whole, it exists somewhere in the middle. It is far from the smoothest production; there are half-finished character arcs and some odd continuity issues. Yet it has moments where the interaction between the humans and the animals is mildly amusing, helped greatly by the fact that it rarely takes itself seriously. Then, it has moments where the plot takes over and it gets bogged down with too many familiar elements. It goes back and forth from diverting to dull. The thought was certainly there, but the result is uneven and forgettable.
The protagonist is a famed doctor who is able to talk to animals. He has shut himself away from the world following the death of his wife. It then finds its way back in when he is summoned to tend to the Queen, who is dying. Seeing no choice, Doctor Dolittle, his animal friends and a new teenage human companion, set off on a perilous quest to find the mythical tree that is the only thing that could save her life.
I will start with the cast because that is the best thing about the movie. Well, there is one exception, and it is a big one. I did not particularly enjoy the title performance by Robert Downey Jr. Part of that is because the character is a collection of tics. As you would expect, he is a strange man who speaks in weird cadences. He also uses an unfortunate Welsh accent that is very distracting, as well as unnecessary. I can only guess Downey wanted to use it. They should have talked him out of it. I suppose there is a version of this where the character grows and those tics amount to something. Alas, it opens with the makings of an emotional arc and then forgets about it. So instead of three-dimensional, he is just annoying.
The rest of the cast is fun. Antonio Banderas brings heart to a king who has it out for Dolittle. I would have liked a lot more of him. Michael Sheen is funny as Dolittle’s ignorant rival, who always learns the joke is on him. He plays the villainous role exactly how it should be played in this kind of movie. Then there are all the animal voices, brought to life by Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson and Jason Mantzoukas, among others. Even though it kind of seemed like each of their characters existed in their own separate universe and, again, started stories that did not get finished, their presence was absolutely welcome. The standouts were Thompson as Dolittle’s trusted parrot confidante, Nanjiani as a selfish ostrich, Robinson as a revenge-minded squirrel and the usually hilarious Mantzoukas as an easily distracted dragonfly. Dolittle (93 minutes without the end credits) is all over the place, but most of the performers have a decent line or two.
The story is fine. It follows the formula for a family movie: our hero needs to find a magic something with ties to his past so he can save the plot device from the mysterious whatever while avoiding the jerks trying to stop him. There are enough nuggets of something there until it turns into the usual unconnected vignettes leading up to the climax. There is some character detail during the setup, before it gets abandoned. There is nothing offensive and the toilet humor is kept to a reasonable level. Dolittle is not terrible, but it is not good either. It does not work and features an inexplicable performance from Robert Downey Jr. However, it is amusing and has a few inspired touches. I do not recommend it though, if you are desperate to take your kids to something, well, there were definitely worse family movies last year.
2½ out of 5
Robert Downey Jr as Dr. John Dolittle
Harry Collett as Tommy Stubbins
Michael Sheen as Dr. Blair Müdfly
Antonio Banderas as King Rassouli
Jim Broadbent as Lord Thomas Badgley
Carmel Laniado as Lady Rose
Emma Thompson as voice of Polly
Rami Malek as voice of Chee-Chee
John Cena as voice of Yoshi
Kumail Nanjiani as voice of Plimpton
Octavia Spencer as voice of Dab-Dab
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, Dan Grego and Doug Mand