Synopsis – A physician with a talent of talking to animals embarks on a journey.
My Take – Without a doubt last year’s most heartbreaking moment was when Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Spoiler Alert) gave up his life to the save the universe following the climactic battle in Avengers: Endgame. Marking the end of a role, which started in the summer of 2008, and gave birth to the box office oozing pop culture extravaganza known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A role which not only resurrected his career, but also won him a massive fandom.
Hence with the end of his reign in the MCU, as a member of his fandom, I too was excited to see what big project he would tackle for his first big post-Stark role. While outside comic book territory, Downey did manage to show excellent range in films like Tropic Thunder, his passion project The Judge and of course, the Guy Ritchie helmed Sherlock Holmes duology, post-Endgame film was always meant to stabilize his superstardom status quo. Keeping that in mind, Downey, possibly hoping to anchor another franchise, became the face of author Hugh Lofting‘s classic children’s character, Doctor Dolittle.
Incidentally, author Lofting‘s books have inspired multiple adaptions on screen, notably Rex Harrison in Richard Fleischer‘s 1967 adaptation and Eddie Murphy in the 1998 version, which was spun off into one sequel with Murphy and three more without him. While none of the films were particularly any good, but at least they knew what they were, which is how the 1967 film earned a best picture nomination, while the PG-rated film with Murphy, released at the height of his stardom, scored with families.
However, this director Stephen Gaghan adaption, despite aspirations to be a more sophisticated and visually lush adventure, is nothing more than a cinematic Frankenstein’s monster of poop jokes, fart jokes, itchy butt jokes, talking animals, wonky CGI, and Robert Downey Jr. going so big and broad that he makes Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow look like a timid fellow. Considering the bad press the film has been receiving, I am not surprised by the result.
As following poor test screenings, the film’s release date was pushed from spring of 2019 to January of 2020, and underwent extensive re-shoots under director Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and writer Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Film), reportedly punching up the script. During that same period, the name of the film was also retitiled from The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle.
Honestly, there is frankly little charm to this feverishly chaotic film, which seems modeled after the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series but is hardly able to muster the same idiosyncratic appeal. Here, director Stephen Gaghan, whose credits include Traffic and Syriana, stepped out of his comfort zone and clearly did not find his footing in a family feature.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film isn’t the incoherent story line, the suffocating CGI or the unfunny stable of celebrity-voiced creatures, instead its Downey’s personality doesn’t come through at all.
The story follows Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a veterinarian and a medical doctor with an ability to speak to animals. His popularity was such that the Queen of England granted him his own estate and a vast, surrounding sanctuary full of animals. However, when his wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak), a dynamic adventurer herself, passes away at sea, Dolittle, ridden with guilt for not trying to keep her from the dangerous journey, conceals himself from the rest of the world, refusing to seeing or speaking with humans altogether.
That is until, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives seeking help to cure Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) from an apparent mysterious illness. While Dolittle refuses to help at first, upon coaxing from Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), a wise and headstrong macaw and his most trusted advisor, he agrees, and takes his large entourage which consists of a timid Gorilla (voiced by Rami Malek), a whining ostrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), an upbeat polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a crazy duck Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer) and his loyal dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), and reaches the palace.
Convinced that foul play has taken place, Dolittle and his friends, along with Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), an unusually sensitive boy who took his help to heal Kevin (voiced by Craig Robinson), a squirrel with attitude, set sail on an epic voyage to the island of Sumatra, which possesses a rare Eden fruit that might be the only cure. However, standing in the way are his arch nemesis, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), and Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), the king of the pirates, who want make sure that this is indeed hardest journey Dolittle has ever taken.
The first thing you will notice about the film is the tone, which is predictably all over the place, but in an astonishing, blatant way, as if no one actually gives a damn about the audience noticing this.
There are points when the film wants to be the story of a sensitive boy who goes on an adventure and finds a unique family along the way, and there are points when it falls into Pirates of the Caribbean category. Director Stephen Gaghan, does not seem like the ideal choice for a whimsical film like this because the story begins in a chirpy animated form but suddenly slips into a dark and depressing jaunt about a man crying over a woman who left him. Such tonal shifts keep occurring throughout the film making you wonder if there were too many cooks at the helm here.
Not only are the jokes unfunny, the action is terribly unexciting and uninvolving, and not even the purportedly late salvage attempts by director Jonathan Liebersman and writer Chris McKay can turn around what is essentially a misguided film from the very start. Each scene is as messy as you can imagine, with little point except to create enough distraction to keep the younger ones among the audience entertained with the non-stop bickering. There are moments when it feels like entire scenes are missing to get us from one point to the next, and most of the animal characters are completely interchangeable because they’ve been so reduced by drastic editing that they barely get a moment to speak.
It doesn’t help that there is little depth to each one of the non-human characters, even with a whole bunch of Hollywood A-listers assembled to give them voice, especially since they are simply given one single defining trait and nothing more. They’re there for increasingly weak jokes, which culminate in a scene revolving around a dragon’s flatulence. A problem, as ever, is that buckets of visual effects are never good for comedy. And as last year’s The Lion King proved, hyper realism doesn’t do talking animals any favors.
In the most surprising turn of events, Robert Downey Jr’s performance is, also quite something unexpected. Going for a louder Johnny Depp-as-Jack Sparrow-styled performance, Downey dons and delivers his lines in a variety of different accents, which gives you the impression of him channeling his character from Tropic Thunder. He is trying extra hard to stand out with weird accents. It is either that or he knows he signed up for a disaster, and is actively taking steps to complete the train wreck.
The supporting cast of Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Harry Collett, Jessie Buckley, Carmel Laniado and Jim Broadbent also don’t fare better. The voice cast is no doubt stacked, and includes, talents like Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, John Cena, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Jason Mantzoukas, Craig Robinson, Marion Cotillard, Carmen Ejogo, Frances de la Tour and Emma Thompson. Two-thirds of those voices you won’t be able to pick out in the film, either because the actor is doing a silly voice, or because they barely get to say anything. What’s the point of paying these people if you can’t hear them? On the whole, ‘Dolittle’ is a witless, charmless and soulless adventure which utterly wastes its excellent cast.
Directed – Stephen Gaghan
Rated – PG
Run Time – 101 minutes