The January dumping ground for major movie releases continues this week with “Dolittle.” Like our previous issue’s movie “The Grudge,” it’s another third iteration of a familiar franchise. Yet, despite it being a new interpretation of a classic book series with a new star in the title role, “Dolittle” is ironically named as it does little to excite, induce wonder or entertain.
It’s been seven years since the famed veterinarian Doctor John Dolittle, played by Robert Downey Jr., lost his wife due to a shipwreck. Since then, he’s retreated from public life and isolated himself in his home with only animal friends as company. But when the Queen of England suddenly falls ill and the only cure is a rare tropical flower, Dolittle is called to embark on an epic sailing journey to retrieve it and save her before it’s too late.
While it’s refreshing to see the plot take a different approach than the familiar story — rather than retreading the ground of a doctor uncovering the ability to talk to animals — in this version, Dolittle has already discovered his gift. However, his fame and relationship with his wife are all rendered as backstory and are established in a rushed, but visually gorgeous, animated prologue.
This new revitalized plot could have been an interesting spin on the old franchise, but instead the movie opts to have a normal character, Tommy — played by Harry Collett — be the protagonist of the adventure. He’s as dull as dirt, and from a story standpoint is essentially pointless. He’s clumsily introduced at the beginning of the movie by being forced to shoot a squirrel by his hunter dad and takes it to Dolittle out of desperation to save it. He then immediately decides he’s found a true home, and self appoints himself as Dolittle’s apprentice.
Granted that he did adopt a strange accent for the role and obviously dubbed all of his lines in post-production, it is Downey’s show, and his charisma is able to carry the movie to a limited degree. If not a negative for the immersion factor since it constantly reminds you as a viewer that they’re not real, the CGI on the animals is decent and while hardly recognizable by voice alone, many of the animals are played by celebrities you’d recognize by name.
Movie fans will remember that Downey’s historic 11 year run as Iron Man came to a close last year in the epic “Avengers: Endgame.” With this being his first post-Marvel movie, one can only infer that he opted to make something that his young children would enjoy. This seems to be the target demographic for the film, which panders to the cheap seats with bad jokes and cliché villains.
Once Dolittle, Tommy, and the animals embark on their ship to find the flower, the movie’s sense of adventure works to lift the otherwise dull plot line. Visually, the sea and tropical island they visit provide beautiful scenery, but every aspect of the story is tired, predictable, and repetitive.
The film’s behind the scenes troubles have received more headlines than the movie itself, as the project required numerous rewrites by “The LEGO Batman Movie” director Chris McKay. Following poor test screenings of a rough cut, three weeks of reshoots were undertaken and the release date was pushed back by nine months. If this was the ‘fixed’ version, I’d hate to see what it was like before.
Visually stuffed, blandly directed, and full of tepid humor, “Dolittle” might please children in the crowd but hardly anyone else. Collett is a bore as the audience surrogate protagonist while merely following Dolittle around like a lost puppy. Plus, his parents never seem to worry about his unannounced extended absence. One would think that going on a boat trip to a tropical island with a strange man, that surely must have lasted for weeks, would grab attention and spark a parent’s apprehension.
If the whole movie was like the opening animated segment it might have given the project a cohesive visual identity. Not only this, but with a $175 million budget it’s shocking the movie looks so monotonous. Given the ballooned budget, “Dolittle” appears to be the first big flop of the year and decade.
Star Rating: Two stars
- Impressive CGI animal effects.
- Downey’s charisma is infectious.
- The adventurous aspects are appealing.
- Poor humor.
- Predictable plot.
- Dull story.