Just as everybody is recovering from the bizarre CGI human-feline hybrids seen in Cats, another talking-animal film is unleashed on the world. Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle doesn’t mix its species together, but unfortunately, it is far from a palate cleanser.
Dolittle begins like a fairy-tale. Opening with some beautiful animation, the film introduces us to Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) and his wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak). The couple spends many happy years together taking sick and injured animals into their home, but when Lily dies at sea, Dolittle becomes a recluse and shuts out all human contact. That is until Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a young maid from Queen Victoria’s (Jessie Buckley) court, arrives at his country mansion, summoning him to the palace to help find a cure for the Queen’s life-threatening illness.
The film starts off on a few promising notes: it’s funny, Dolittle’s animals are all bursting with personality, and Downey Jr. is pretty entertaining as a Welsh hermit (his accent is not bad either). But once the adventure begins, as Dolittle’s young apprentice Tommy (Harry Collett) and his ragtag band of animals taking to the seas to search for the cure, the film rapidly loses its charm. What started as an interesting plot soon becomes generic and boring, and the story never finds the depth that it is looking for. Through the always-nervous gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) the film tries to teach its young audience about finding courage, but its delivery of the message is half-hearted.
As the comedy takes a turn for the worse, nosediving into the territory of schoolboy humour, so too does the CGI. A film full of talking animals was always going to be CGI-heavy, but there is such an abundance of it that it becomes unsightly, cheap-looking and not what you’d expect from a $175-million budget.
That being said, the film boasts an impressive voice cast, with John Cena and Kumail Nanjiani stealing the show as Yoshi and Plimpton, a surprisingly delightful polar bear and ostrich duo. They have some great banter and a genuine arc to their relationship. If there was ever a spinoff, you would want it to be about these two.
It is no secret that the film was burdened with a troubled production, which is perhaps to blame for its flaws. Previously titled The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, it was originally set to be released in April 2019 but underwent weeks of reshoots after poor test screenings. The Hollywood Reporter reported that there was effectively a “revolving door of filmmakers”, including Seth Rogen, joining and subsequently leaving the project, although Gaghan remained involved the whole way through.
Save for a few plot details, such as Tommy being Dolittle’s son rather than his apprentice, we’ll never know what the full original cut was supposed to entail. But the version of the film that we do have plays it extremely safe, and when it does take a risk, it just doesn’t work. It has some enjoyable moments here and there, and will probably be enjoyed by very young viewers, but overall Dolittle has very little to offer.
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
Written by: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, Chris McKay
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Tom Holland, Jim Broadbent, Rami Malek, Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer