What is ‘Dolittle’, Even?
In the climax of Dolittle, Robert Downey, Jr. clears a dragon’s obstructed bowel with his fist and a leek. The dragon’s massive fart topples a red squirrel voiced by Craig Robinson. “I can taste it,” moans Kevin the Squirrel. Ignoring Kevin and the fart, RDJ drops a fun fact, “The leek is the national symbol of Wales,” and continues his mythically-proportioned colonic. You can learn something from everything, even a movie where this might be the best joke.
DOLITTLE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
Written by: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, and Doug Mand
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. , Emma Thompson, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Tom Holland, Antonio Banderas
Running time: 103 min
Dolittle tosses out Eddie Murphy’s horny, flatulent reboots and the three further straight-to-video sequels featuring Murphy’s Dolittle’s daughter and a dog voiced by Norm MacDonald that nobody had the sense to name Norm MacDog-nald. I didn’t know about them either, but they titled Dr. Dolittle 4 “Tail to the Chief”, and hail to that. Instead, Stephen Gaghan and crew adapted the original Hugh Lofting books that birthed the underappreciated Rex Harrison musical.
A short piece of expository animation informs us that after the untimely death of his explorer wife, the brilliant, animal-fluent doctor sequestered himself to a menagerie granted by the queen. Who hasn’t gone through that? Beardy-something isolated years later, a kid named Stubbins shows up at the menagerie with a wounded squirrel at the same time as news arrives of the queen’s mortal illness. A scheming politico (Jim Broadbent) and an evil goatee with a top hat who might be a professor or something (Michael Sheen) have poisoned the queen. If the queen dies, the government can repossess the menagerie. Save the queen, save the house. Kind of like “One Crazy Summer.”
Kicking the timeframe back to the 19th century indulges RDJ’s wanton waistcoatery, top hat flips he mastered as Sherlock Holmes, and a newfound love for mumbled Welsh accents. One of the most remarkable things about Dolittle is how unremarkable Downey is in the role. It’s not that he’s bad, it’s more that he’s not really the center of attention, which is strange given that he’s dressed like a Stevie Nicks impersonator, frequently found squawking, and his first appearance is supposed to find him in the same hirsute derangement as Robin Williams at the beginning of Jumanji.
The manic energy and sadness that Williams brought to that role and even Murphy’s frenetic hamminess as Dolittle are missing here. Instead, we’re forced to sit through tired jokes delivered by Dolittle’s crew: a scared ape (Rami Malek), an always cold polar bear (John Cena), an annoying ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), a surgical assistant duck who doesn’t know one instrument from another (Octavia Spencer), and the non-neurotic parrot (Emma Thompson) who keeps everything together. Essentially, it’s a sub-par Toy Story with Dolittle in the Woody role and a much less funny crew backing him up with Godfather jokes that were stale in 1985.
But will kids like it? Sure, probably. It’s expensive, brightly colored, and the CGI animals look pretty decent. There are fun Rube Goldberg-ian contraptions, like a whale-borne boat hyperdrive and steam-powered food machines. Sheen gets off a couple of fun lines, and Antonio Banderas shows up as a vicious pirate king and father-in-law from hell. For all the effort spent creating awesome pirate forts and talking squids, the script doesn’t bother to decide the fate of a main villain until a boring post-credit sequence. Why talk to the animals if most of them are neurotic buttfaces? That question remains unanswered.