Cert – PG, Run-time – 1 hour 41 minutes, Director – Stephen Gaghan
When Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) suffers from a gradual poisoning Dr Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) is sent on a voyage to find the one thing that will cure her
Talking (and singing) animals really don’t seem to be going well for Universal. Cats was a universally panned box-office bomb that, aside from the odd jab, seems to have been mostly forgotten, even the nightmares have begun to fade away. Now, comes another story with talking animals, voiced by a similarly all-star cast, and the man that can talk to them, Dolittle. Once again, it almost seems weird to think that the cast were brought on by the script, in fact the conclusion that some wouldn’t be mistaken for would be the fact that the likes of Robert Downey Jr, John Cena, Rami Malek, Emma Thompson, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Kumail Nanjiani and more were paid a large sum of the $175 million budget – it certainly couldn’t have all gone on the CG animals and ocean landscapes. But, this isn’t something to throw-up presumptions and accusations, this is, after all, a review, not a blame game with a lack of knowledge in such areas.
Speaking of the largely A-list cast that lines the film Michael Sheen is also present as Dolittle’s rival, Dr. Blair Müdfly – the joke being that people pronounce his last name as ‘mudfly’, and he apparently hasn’t got a chin. At some points when hearing Downey Jr speak as the titular Dr. Dolittle it almost seems as if he heard Michael Sheen’s Welsh accent and decided to copy it. However, when he speaks the accent produced almost seems as if it’s been badly dubbed over the movement of his lips in post-production, alongside sounding like a mixture of various other British accents. That is when he’s not grunting or squawking to animals, Dolittle’s ability essentially makes him a translator, which makes for some slightly awkward scenes when his new apprentice, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), also tries to adopt this skill. In fact even from one of the opening scenes, an extended sequence of Dolittle attemping to play chess with Rami Malek’s gorilla, Chee-Chee, where the chess pieces are mice with headgear on, while speaking in various different animal tongues, sets the tone for what the film is likely to be. While the two opening scenes for mild context show some hope in the end the film ends up as a bit of a mess.
Dolittle lives in hiding from the rest of the world after the death of his wife, Lilly (Kasia Smutniak). However, when the Queen (Jessie Buckley) calls for his help after being poisoned he emerges back into the world to go on a voyage to find the only thing that will cure the mostly unconscious monarch. However, first he must travel somewhere else to find a journal in which lies instructions on how to find the island on which the tree that grows the fruit grows on. What seems like something relatively simple somehow manages to get deeply tied up and borderline confusing. This might be because of the messy nature of the film, and the generally uninteresting nature. And while all this is happening Michael Sheen is trying to get the cure before Dolittle by the order of Jim Broadbent’s Lord Thomas Badgley, a figure who you would never once begin to guess was secretly villainous so that it comes as even more of a shock when the film reveals for the second time that he’s the villain, as if thinking it can get a response like it’s the first – it almost seems as if the writer’s forgot about the character – the audience certainly did – and needed to make note of this element again.
When it comes to the attempted humour things never properly takes off – one moment where John Cena’s polar Bear, Yoshi, states “one day my Dad went out for a pack of seals and never came back” you don’t know whether it’s meant to be humorous, serious or even both. While there are some elements that work, and points where the film is at least bearable and just about watchable before the humour and awkwardness sets back in, including the costume design which at least adds something, the overall feel is somewhat uninviting. There’s not a great deal to connect with that brings the viewer into the world of the film. Mix in some rather lacking performances, the heart just doesn’t seem to be there from anyone, this almost seems to be a project to pass the time until the next big role that’s to come along. Even star-power can’t help but lift the screenplay, something just above a selection of ideas but not quite beyond the second draft. It all combines to make a rather un-enthralling, sloppily made trudge through messy and lacking material.
Rounding off Dolittle’s messy themes and style is the fact that it doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a family film or just a film for young-kids, the climax involves bagpipes being removed from a mythical creatures rear-end. This is a very different film for writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who’s previous works consist of more adult dramas like Traffic, Syriana and 2017’s Gold – which had a somewhat lukewarm-poor response, but I personally really liked – his take on a family film seems unsure. His screenplay, written with occasional sitcom and animated TV show writers Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, feels as if there is trepidation around what the tone and feel of the film should be, further pushing the idea of a second draft feeling. There’s a great deal missing from the film. Much like the boats that feature throughout; the script, and film in general, and in need of further construction.
Seemingly stuck in the second draft Dolittle is a mixture of unengaging characters, adventure that lacks in thrills and a number of poor attempts at jokes, the most stable thing about it might just be Robert Downey Jr’s wobbly Welsh accent.