Review: ‘Dolittle’ (reworked Rex Harrison)

Overloaded but not unwatchable CG animal fluff… with humans.

After withdrawing from the public eye following a personal tragedy, the famous Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) is content to hide behind the walls of his animal sanctuary away from Victorian England. His self-imposed exile is simultaneously interrupted by Stubbins (Harry Collett), a boy bringing the doctor a wounded animal, and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a girl with news the sickly Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has summoned the doctor. Uncovering a sinister plot involving former rival Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) and Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent), Dolittle and Stubbins must find a legendary restorative from a uncharted island to heal the monarch. Unfortunately, needful details required to complete the quest are in the possession of Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), a pirate king with a vendetta against the good doctor… and the clock is ticking.

Returning to the century-old source material — “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” by Hugh Lofting — this rework is closer in spirit to the 1967 Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle film than the more recent Eddie Murphy incarnations. CGI has come a long way toward fleshing out computer-generated characters with an eye for realism, but human voices are still beyond current technology. After a decade playing an tech-armored genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, are audiences ready for RDJ as a soft-spoken Welsh-accented veterinarian with a gleam in his eye toward a future franchise?

As a Victorian-era fantasy, the look and feel echoes Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the best possible way. This could have served the production well… if not for the crutch of having the famous-voiced non-human characters (Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez) speak with non-Victorian accents, modern slang, and using anachronistic references without context. While the family friendly and inclusive-positive themes are a good thing, it’s a repeatedly jarring effect that all the critters sound like they’re from another century. Between manic and/or silly scenes with too much happening and a story with not enough, this mess of a movie has a very narrow audience in mind while still having its heart in the right place.

The human cast is delightful and (in some case literally) animated, the core of any storybook fantasy. RDJ plays the title character as open and empathetic if somewhat odd and rightfully xenophobic toward other humans. Sheen wallows in self-awareness and over-the-top reactions while the kids bring the inclusiveness, spunk, and wonder. The invention of the production is also noteworthy; a daring escape at sea is a prime example of what the movie could have included more and done more with. It’s in all ways a zoo where the animals are in charge — a bit unrealistic considering “all animals” includes carnivores befriending their herbivore food, but hey: kids. One large set piece involving retrieval of the McGuffin involves a very real veterinary procedure, but the scene that should have been the exception to get away it in a positive way (“Everybody does it”) ends up fueling a toilet-humor inclination that shortchanges the narrative.

It’s too bad too much of the production sounds like unscripted interactions later animated and spliced in to keep as much silliness intact at the sacrifice of story. Since this appears to be a stylistic choice and, as it turns out, it was… after the fact. It’s been reported that test-screenings weren’t kid-friendly enough for the murderous plot device the adventure hinges upon, prompting Universal Studios to infuse expensive re-shot scenes sprinkled throughout the film (read: even more animals per scene and more silliness) that well explains the biggest problems with the buried storyline. That means Dolittle must recoup a reported $175 million production budget before advertising — ouch.

Kids of all ages may find plenty to enjoy herein, but the kindergarten to pre-‘tween set is likely to receive the most benefit… which means it isn’t for everyone in spite of being advertised for all ages. Much of the suggested story is more interesting than what ended up in the final cut, so if this rework does well enough, the inevitable franchise could well explore those possibilities and do that rarest of things: creating a sequel that improves upon the original.

Dolittle is rate PG for some action, rude humor, brief language, and an overly dramatic squirrel.

Two skull recommendation out of four

💀 #grmdrpr #moviecryptdotcom #reapingwhathollywoodsows

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