The entire concept of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle was to use the character’s ability to speak to animals as a means to understand nature and the history of the world. There have been quite a few film adaptations that have been contemporized, but they have stayed true to the character. So it makes for a great family-friendly film that will be full of adventure and laughs. Which makes Robert Downey Jr. the perfect person to star in Dolittle as the title character.
But despite the film’s good heart and Downey’s eccentric charms, it is a bizarre piece of work that is filled with poor characterization, sloppy editing, and zero tonal consistency.
After his beloved wife dies on an oceanic voyage, Dolittle, the famed doctor and veterinarian in Victorian England, hides away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor, with only a menagerie of animals to keep him company.
But when the Queen of England becomes gravely ill, a disheveled and wary Dolittle is summoned to find a cure. Dolittle reluctantly embarks on an adventure to find an undiscovered island that holds the cure. If he doesn’t, he loses his entire estate and will leave his animals without a home. Along with Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), Dolittle’s self-appointed apprentice, and the menagerie of animals of Dolittle manor, Dolittle goes on his greatest adventure where he will encounter old foes and mystical creatures.
Dolittle’s inconsistent tones and strange pacing feels like the film is at war with itself. Director Stephen Gaghan may have directed Syriana and won Oscar for writing Traffic, but Dolittle is a family-friendly film that is rich with comedy and visual effects. Something of which that Gaghan has no background in. And it really shows.
The film goes from a lighthearted opening filled with excitement and wonder to something that is devastatingly tragic to a wacky introduction of the titular vet. And that is just the opening minutes. It’s hard to get a read on what kind of film Dolittle wants to be as it goes from one thing to the next with absolutely no explanation or understanding why it is at that point and how it got to the next point. The film itself seems to be in a hurry to get finished.
Instead of clearing things up, it just adds to the confusion by adding more layers to it. The family-friendly action-adventure adds conspiracy and family drama in an attempt to build up the stakes and increase a sense of urgency. None of it actually lands, though, as these pieces feel more forced to fit than it does act as an organic part of the story.
It doesn’t help that the comedy does more to be offputting and out of place than it does to alleviate some of the film’s more emotionally heavy moments. Most of the comedy amounts to physical humor that tries to come off as silly but instead is just a poor attempt at getting a cheap laugh. Still, film’s childish humor can work. There’s an optimistic polar bear and cynical ostrich who are are a bickering pair, an enthusiastic duck that cannot tell the difference between celery and forceps, a loyal dog that wears a pair of glasses, a wise-cracking dragonfly, and a dragon with a severe gas problem.
It then has to balance out all of that comedy, or lack thereof, with a high-stakes adventure that oversells the danger and excitement. During this quest, Dolittle has to contend with adversaries like Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen), a bitter rival of Dolittle, who will do anything to take the credit for saving the queen. And then, there’s Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), the king of pirates who holds a grudge towards Dolittle. There will be oceanic confrontations where Dolitte uses his ingenuity to use whales to pull his sailing ship away from Mudfly’s menacing steelplated battleship. There will also be fighting to survive moments as Rassouli unleashes a fearsome tiger on an imprisoned Dolittle. And for some reason, Rassouli takes Tommy under his wing.
Of course, the overall theme of this journey gives Dolittle a chance to finally move past the tragic loss of his wife. And it is on his journey that he learns more about himself and what it means to put other’s needs before your own. And for some reason, they needed to have a dragon enema to make that point.
And if the tonal mashup wasn’t bad enough, the equally strange cuts only add to the confusion. At times it looks like characters aren’t together despite them being in the same room. Furthermore, when things get more action-heavy, it becomes a disjointed mess, and it’s hard to tell what is going on or what we should be paying attention to during all of the chaos. Characters appear at one place during the scene only to appear at the completely opposite end of the room during another with absolutely no explanation.
While the film has a menagerie of animals, we hardly spend any time with them. Any character development feels rushed. It’s not clear how long any of them have had their flaws or phobias, but they seem to get over it pretty quickly. This includes Dolittle, who starts off as a depressed disheveled hermit who avoids eye contact but becomes the eccentric hero of the story. It’s not so much that the title character’s personality is a bit odd, that is part of the appeal. It’s just how he seems to get over the tragedy that is questionable. But Downey Jr. works with the material that he is given to the best of his ability.
The same can be said for the voice cast consisting of Emma Thompson, Kumail Nanjani, John Cena, Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, Tom Holland, Craig Robertson, Ralph Finnes, Carmen Ejgogo, Marion Cotillard, Selena Gomez, and Frances De La Tour. All of them do what they can with the script.
Despite all of his, Dolittle is not without its charms. Though the structure is incredibly flawed and the comedy a bit cheap, the film still has a bit of enjoyment. That comes through mostly from Downey Jr., who carries a lot of the emotional weight of the film. Sheen gives us an entertainingly cheesy villain that is reminiscent of the base mustache-twirling baddies we’ve seen in the past. However, other human characters are easily forgotten because they are just incredibly one-note and undeveloped.
For what it is worth, Dolittle does have something to say. The only problem is, it makes far too much noise to know that is and takes far too long to deliver that message.