Film Review – Dolittle (2020)
Dolittle (2020) is the kind of middle-of-the-road film that is frustrating to write about. On one hand, it’s not remarkable enough to jump over the moon and sing its praises. On the other, it’s just competent enough to provide some level of entertainment. It’s the kind of movie that offers pure escapism, where parents can bring their kids and get two hours’ worth of distraction. In the long history of remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings, this one falls right down the middle. That may be what the studio is going for: something that is relatively safe and inoffensive. But because it misses any kind of standout element, it makes the task of writing about it a slog. How does one find inspiration to review a movie that lacks ambition to be anything more than just “okay?”
Let’s start with the basics. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan – yes, the same Stephen Gaghan behind the likes of Traffic (2000) and Syriana (2005) – adapts Hugh Lofting’s popular book series as a zany family adventure. With co-writers Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, and Thomas Shepherd, this iteration introduces Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) as an animal-talking recluse in Victorian-era England. Tragedy struck his family long ago, and since then Dolittle has enclosed himself in his zoo-like compound with only his animals to keep him company. Destiny calls when the Queen of England (Jessie Buckley) falls gravely ill, with Dolittle being tasked to go on a high seas quest to find a cure. Along the way, he picks up a young apprentice (Harry Collett) while avoiding the dastardly clutches of the evil Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen).
The voice acting immediately comes to the forefront as a welcome surprise. Many of Dolittle’s furry companions have a chance to garner a laugh. Some of the high-end contributors include Emma Thompson as both a colorful macaw and the film’s narrator, Rami Malek as a gorilla who’s afraid of everything, John Cena as a beanie-wearing polar bear, and Kumail Nanjiani as a cynical ostrich. A nice twist with the voice acting comes with how it operates in contrast with the era. While the story takes place in the past, the writing and voice acting have a modern quality that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Craig Robinson voices a squirrel who logs his everyday activities the same way Captain Kirk or Captain Picard would in Star Trek. The fact that this comparison can be made is exactly why it’s funny.
But where the voice acting of the animals was a positive, the same can’t be said for Robert Downey Jr.’s version of the title character. Maybe it’s my own ignorance, but Downey’s accent was confusing and made a lot of his dialogue near indecipherable. Downey surely doesn’t lack charisma, and on a physical front he appears to be invested in the role. Yet every time he spoke, he did so quickly, in a heavy accent, and with low volume. It’s as though he were mumbling his lines in rapid fire. As he was giving orders to his crew, it came off as a jumbled stutter. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d like to think I can hear well and that I can understand English. Or maybe I should get my ears checked out.
The special effects are, well, what they are. In a movie where animals talk, run around a ship in the middle of a naval battle, or waddling about Buckingham Palace, the CGI is about as believable (or artificial) as one would expect. Oddly enough, the film begins with an extended prologue that is done in colorful, 2D, hand drawn animation. On a visual level, this section is the most pleasing to the eye, and makes me again wonder why most major American studios refuse to go this route for an entire feature. Hand drawn animation allows us to accept characters and stories that lean toward the fantastic. If Dolittle had been done entirely in this way, I may have been more enthusiastic about it.
Michael Sheen and Antonio Banderas both turn in some playful performances. As Dr. Mudfly, Sheen is the classic old school villain, dressed in black and even sporting a twisty handlebar mustache. We half expect him to twist the ends with his fingers as he lays out his schemes or tie his latest victim down to railroad tracks. Banderas has a ball playing the eyeliner wearing pirate Rassoulim. With his extravagant clothing and unparalleled swagger, Banderas’ short but memorable performance makes us wish he had a chance to be in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Dr. Dolittle has now been portrayed by three actors on the big screen: Rex Harrison, Eddie Murphy, and here with Downey. Murphy’s version diverts the most away from the source material, although I’m not going to say that Harrison’s or Downey’s portrayals are classic in themselves. I have such a lukewarm response to this property that no version so far has stuck with me as a definitive take. Maybe the character is like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot – they’ve been played well before, but the standard still remains on the page.