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Dolittle Movie Review

Dolittle (2020) movie poster Dolittle

Theatrical Release: January 17, 2020 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Stephen Gaghan / Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand (screenplay); Thomas Shepherd (screen story); Hugh Lofting (books)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr. (Dr. John Dolittle), Antonio Banderas (King Rassouli), Michael Sheen (Dr. Blair Müdfly), Jim Broadbent (Lord Thomas Badgely), Jessie Buckley (Queen Victoria), Harry Collett (Tommy Stubbins), Emma Thompson (voice of Poly), Rami Malek (voice of Chee-Chee), John Cena (voice of Yoshi), Kumail Nanjiani (voice of Plimpton), Octavia Spencer (voice of Dab-Dab), Tom Holland (voice of Jip), Craig Robinson (voice of Kevin), Ralph Fiennes (voice of Barry), Selena Gomez (voice of Betsy), Marion Cotillard (voice of Tutu)


Thanks largely to playing Tony Stark/Iron Man in ten films over the past dozen years, Robert Downey Jr. is probably the most beloved movie star in the world right now. His tenure at Marvel seemed to come to a close in last year's Avengers: Endgame, although the studio and its deaging technology probably keep the door permanently open for a lucrative return (as soon as this year's Black Widow prequel in fact).
Still, Downey is about to embark upon a new phase of his career, the first without a number and the letters MCU attached to it. It's a critical time for the once-troubled actor, with one of the highest pay-per-work ratios in show business at stake. Oddly, Downey has picked Dolittle as the high-profile project with which to make this fragile transition.

Yes, Dolittle marks only the latest attempt to bring the star of Hugh Lofting's 1920s children's books to the big screen. Adaptations began as early as the 1928 silent animated German short Doktor Dolittle und seine Tiere, but most people probably know the character from either the 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison, an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture believe it or not, or the hit 1998 contemporary comedy starring Eddie Murphy, a Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Award nominee for Favorite Movie, which Fox turned into a five-film franchise that ended up direct-to-video and with Kyla Pratt as its star.

The new Dolittle skews more to the original, utilizing a period setting and drawing primarily from Lofting's second novel, 1922's The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. But it also carries a staggering $175 million budget and you can bet from its January release it won't be competing for any major awards. Beyond Downey's hefty salary, the budget also goes to visual effects, namely computer animation that brings an assortment of exotic animals to life and with photorealistic vocals. That in itself is a lucrative practice in Hollywood, with Jon Favreau's "not animated" Jungle Book and Lion King remakes alone grossing close to $3 billion worldwide.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Dr. Dolittle, a veterinarian who talks to the animals in 2020's "Dolittle."

Those nostalgia and Visual Effects Oscar-courting adventures look like serious cinema compared to the farcical Dolittle, which inexplicably hails from writer-director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana), looking to rebound from his worthwhile 2016 Matthew McConaughey flop Gold. There's not a comedic or family-oriented work in Gaghan's filmography until now, which might explain why Dolittle seems to have no clue what it's doing.

Even Downey, whose charisma and offbeat comic stylings retrospectively made him the perfect fit for Marvel, seems lost at sea here, surrounded by CG critters, a couple of child actors, and a nemesis played by a ridiculously hammy Michael Sheen. His John Dolittle is in a Sherlock Holmesian state of disarray when the film opens. The widowed veterinarian, whose backstory is detailed in a nice animated prologue, has closed the wildlife park he and his wife devoted to studying and caring for animals, whom Dolittle can understand and are translated into English for us in his presence. Now he's in danger of losing the land when it turns out that England's young Queen Victoria is on her deathbed.

The only hope of saving the Queen is for Dr. Dolittle to make a perilous voyage to a remote, mythical island, where the only cure to Her Royal Highness' ailments is rumored to be found. Joining him on this adventure is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett). Stubbins is an adolescent boy from a family of hunters who doesn't have the heart to shoot animals but has brought a squirrel he has inadvertently wounded and is now set upon becoming Dolittle's apprentice.

Dolittle prioritizes characters over story at least enough to acclimate us to the wacky shenanigans of the hesitant ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); Polynesia, an Emma Thompson-voiced macaw who trims Dolittle's sideburns as needed; a bespectacled dog named Jip (current live-action Spider-Man Tom Holland); polar bear Yoshi (John Cena); and the anxiety-riddled gorilla Chee-Chee (reigning Best Actor Oscar winner Rami Malek).

In just one winter, Antonio Banderas managed to both get nominated for his first Best Actor Oscar and menacingly hold Dr. Dolittle's apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett).

There's a handful of chuckles in the animal antics, like an Octavia Spencer-voiced duck mistaking vegetables for surgical utensils (a gag that outstays its welcome). There is more than a handful of cringes, as the film repeatedly opts for broad gags that largely miss their marks. The production has attracted a number of talented, in-demand actors:
Antonio Banderas and Jim Broadbent fill supporting live-action roles and Ralph Fiennes and Marion Cotillard also contribute animal vocals. But it's really hard to understand why, beyond the involvement of Downey, who has had limited success outside of superheroism and Sherlock Holmes.

A movie this expensive should not be mystifying in its lack of appeal. The family films it reminds one of are not the good ones like Paddington, The Muppets, and the first Chronicles of Narnia, but broad miscalculations like Evan Almighty and the Jack Black Gulliver's Travels. Dolittle almost feels like a movie that Black's Tropic Thunder character would have made. It'd make for an amusing fake trailer, but the full-feature length adventure we get starring the man who was Academy Award nominated as Kirk Lazarus is a drag and even more so than the much-maligned Tim Allen Shaggy Dog that provided Downey with one of his last pre-Marvel Renaissance credits.

It's not all that surprising if you read the Wikipedia entry on the film and learn that Jonathan Liebesman (a Worst Director nominee at the Razzies for 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) was brought in to help Gaghan on three weeks of reshoots following poor test screenings. Originally scheduled to open last Memorial Day weekend, Dolittle was moved up to April 2019 and then bumped back to January 2020, a month long recognized as a dead zone for new releases. Big-budget family films can occasionally succeed without being very good, but even with Downey's considerable star power this one has its work cut out for it.

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Robert Downey Jr.: Iron ManThe Shaggy Dog (2006) • Sherlock Holmes
Gulliver's TravelsEvan AlmightyThe Jungle Book (2016) • The Lion King (2019)
Directed by Stephen Gaghan: Gold | Written by Stephen Gaghan: Traffic

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Reviewed January 24, 2020.

Text copyright 2020 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2020 Universal Pictures, Perfect World Pictures, Roth/Kirschenbaum Films, and Team Downey Productions.
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