Dolittle is a befuddling and bewildering mess that’s barely passable for kids and nearly unwatchable for grownups. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan $175M disaster is filled with failed attempts at nostalgia and narrative that don’t seem to have an identity. Are we a comedy? Are we an action movie? It’s hard to make heads or tails out of it most of the time. One can only assume that the massive amount of re-shoots and re-editing that ballooned the film’s overblown budget only exacerbated this. At one point, we are dealing with the grief on Dolittle losing his one true love, and then we are dealing with his newly formed phobia centering around interactions with humans. Have I mentioned that somehow dragons are involved in this as well? It’s almost as if they said: “let’s try all of this” … and none of it works. Now yes, the idea of watching animals talking and hitting one obvious punchline after another will resonate with little kids but at almost every turn the film chooses to devalue kids’ intelligence and aims squarely at lowest common denominators.
The storyline of this version of Dolittle is similar to its predecessors but with a few slight twists. Based on the 1920s children’s book by Hugh Lofting, Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, film begins with the good doctor being in mourning after the death of his one true love at sea. Instead of seeking help, he decided to shut the door of the very sanctuary which the Queen had given him years ago. He’s brought out of retirement at the request of the queen, who, on her deathbed, calls upon the one man who can save her.
Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is a wild mixture of accents here. At certain points, he sounded Scottish and at other times he seemed English. It’s a convoluted combination of dialects that becomes more of a distraction than anything instead of something that could have enhanced the overall experience of the film. If Doolittle was striving for a more exotic feel to it then why not just the good doctor be from America living in England. Doing this at the very least would have taken some of the focus off of his ridiculous attempt at being exotic.
Dolittle also relies way too much upon “fart” jokes. Once is funny, sure, but crop dusting them throughout the film just diluted punchlines to a point of overdosed repetition. As for the actual storyline, it’s hard to even develop a rational reason for what occurs with Dolittle. Gaghan starts the story off in one direction involving the good doctor’s seclusion and how the circumstances of one confused boy and how the aforementioned queen on her deathbed brought him out from behind the gate. Then the film turns into a quest to find a way to save her, a plot twist that would have made more sense but in the midst of the first act. Instead, we splinter off into another tangient involving a plot to kill the queen and a jealous colleague of the good doctor. This kills any momentum we had built and takes the film in yet another wild direction. Just as we feel a bit settled into this direction Dolittle takes, we now apparently have to travel to an island that’s mystical! And can’t be found on a map! But can be found in his late wife’s journal! All of which can only be acquired in the heavily guarded treasure room of his ex-father-in-law….you get the point. With every direction the film takes, it just gets that much more convoluted, especially for what is essentially – and intended to be – a children’s film.
Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography didn’t do this film any favors. Any chance to pan a shot and capture the beauty of their surroundings is sacrificed for unnecessary tight shots. Rather than feeling any connection with these characters, we merely accept their presence, and that’s about all. Worse, Dolittle wastes an incredible cast that includes Oscar winners Octavia Spencer, Emma Thompson, Marion Cotillard and Rami Malek as well as Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Kumail Nanjiani and Selena Gomez at every turn. Antagonists Michael Sheen and brand new Oscar nominee Antonio Banderas come off as perversely comic foils instead of funny. Sheen spends most of the movie with an oversized black goatee, and Banderas looks more punk than some vicious king.
Had the Gaghan crafted a narrative more in line with the original and not so different, we might have had a better outcome. But this mixture of elements just became a little too much to bear.