Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Written by Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand
The current cinematic landscape consists of a increasingly difficult battle against streaming services that allow viewers to sit back and relax on their own coach to enjoy content. With that in mind, studios have largely abandoned innovation and chance taking in favor of Intellectual Property releases which their financial people tell them are more of a sure thing. What this amounts to is a complete lack of new and interesting content to see on the big screen. People can blame Marvel for doing this, but it really is the advent of in-home streaming that has built this trend, and with that not changing anytime soon, we get this, a completely unnecessary reboot of Dr. Dolittle, which was originally portrayed by Rex Harrison and then recreated by Eddie Murphy during the height of his popularity at the turn of the century. No one asked for this.
And yet, we get it in the dumping grounds of January. So while parents are catching up with the Oscar Buzz movies at the end of the year, they can send their children to this childish rehash in hopes of providing a laugh or two, and a chance to see talking animals on the big screen. Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) is a sad sap in this iteration. Having lost his beloved Lily on an adventure, Dolittle shutters his animal retreat, cutting himself off from the world. But when the Queen of England calls on him for help, he finds himself immersed in yet another adventure, which takes him across the globe in search of the mythic Eden Tree and its healing fruit. With the help of his band of animal sidekicks, with which only he can communicate, Dolittle rediscovers his life motivation on this grand adventure.
While this seems a curious choice to bring back to the big screen, I certainly can understand the studio’s motivation. I cannot, however, understand Robert Downey Jr.’s motivation in this role (except maybe as a favor to his wife, who is a producer on the film), because RDJ is doing something completely curious here. I’m not quite sure whether he is phoning this performance in, or just trying something so weird and wild that if felt that way. He plays Dolittle so aloof, and with a strange whisper of a voice that in the beginning I genuinely wondered whether he was being dubbed. For such an iconic character, I was solemnly disappointed to not get the charisma which has made Downey a star in the second act of his career. The performances across the board just largely do not work, including the two child performances who, presumably, were just directed to smile in delight at almost everything that is happening around them.
But perhaps the most egregious error this movie makes is being really boring. The film, in its opening moments in summarizing the demise of Lily Dolittle, presents a completely delightful, beautiful and fun animated sequence which is full of Lily and John’s interesting animal adventures. This is what this movie should be. Fun, adventurous, even animated! Truly a remarkable and purely enjoyable sequence, I would have loved to have seen this movie. But instead, we get the afterward, which is a sad, boring redemption story which opens on a mopey, shy and completely uninteresting Dr. John Dolittle, living a recluse life with his animals in his lush, but now overgrown estate. It’s a bitter entry to the character which has so much more potential. I am not sure why this choice was made, but its tedium is almost highlighted by the verve and joy of the animated sequence directly preceding it. Seeing that wonderful potential really makes the rest of the film a drag to sit through. Give us the animated Dolittle!
As far as starts to a new cinematic year goes, this is a really bad start. Usually after the high of an awards season rush of great movies (and 2019 was a GREAT awards season rush), along with the combination of the January/February studio dumping grounds for bad films, it’s hard to find a great or even good film to latch onto early in the year, so from that perspective, Dolittle is not a surprise. But that does not mean that it can’t also be a disappointment. Studios like to force these IPs onto us whether we want them or not, and while we didn’t need a new Dolittle movie, there is enough there to make a good movie of it, so it’s that much more disappointing when that is not delivered. Endlessly frustrating, however, when they tease what seems like a remarkably fun and interesting movie only to use it as a exposition sequence to set up the rest of their extremely boring movie.
Guys, I made it to the end of the review and didn’t make a single joke about this movie doing very little! Dangit, I ruined it.