There are two ways to look at Dolittle. The cynical side points to the (not-so) fictional machine churning out ideas, which landed on random A-list star (Robert Downey Jr.) in established IP role (Doctor Dolittle), for an adventure story (voyage to a mythical island), with comedy support (a big cast of celebrities voicing animals). A more cheerful way of looking at this film is enjoying Downey taking a role outside of Tony Stark to embrace something fun for a family, with enough imagination to make a talking animal film something more inspired than Disney’s CG Lion King remake. Alas, Dolittle actually falls somewhere in between. Whether it’s due to all the post-production reshoots and rewrites or the bland fantasy adventure template from producer Joe Roth (Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland), the film doesn’t entirely sink, but it merely sits just above the water.
As another Team Downey production, I am fascinated by what went into developing this project. Universal snagged the rights to the classic Hugh Lofting character, keeping it away from Fox (therefore keeping it away from Disney in the process). From there, I suppose Downey was having his annual screening of Syriana and decided Stephen Gaghan (Oscar-winner for writing Traffic) was the perfect person to come on and direct a film about an eccentric doctor who talks to animals and goes on a sea voyage to battle a dragon, and save the Queen of England.
I’m not sure what happened from there, as the movie was filmed back in 2018, and has since shifted release dates three times. However, the results are a film that’s at least more interesting and zanier than the moody trailer (punctuated by another slow rendition of a pop song) would indicate. Loosely based on 1922’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, the second out of fifteen published books, the story provides a simple enough goal, with some decent stakes, and plenty of animal characters (and colorful human roles) to make things interesting.
An animated prologue establishes Dolittle as the famed veterinarian who’s locked himself away for years after the death of his wife (yes, this means we first see Downey with a ridiculous beard). When told Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has fallen ill, which could result in him losing his own vast estate, Dolittle reluctantly settles to go on a voyage to find a cure, bringing his animal friends with him. This results in sea battles, encounters with deadly pirates, and other events pushing him towards swashbuckler status.
Downey is pretty good in the role. Rather than take on another variation of Tony Stark (which is essentially the most arrogant version of Downey), he adopts a light Scottish/Welsh(?) accent and plays into the peculiarity of a man who can talk to animals. The film rightfully takes the “Tom Clancy 90s movies” approach to this early on as well by zooming in on Dolittle’s mouth when making animal noises, then zooming out to show what he and the animals are actually saying. Really, this is not unlike a Johnny Depp performance (complete with hats and scarves). Still, Downey brings a likable warmth to the role that feels about as fresh as his take on Sherlock Holmes.
The voice cast is solid as well. As animals ranging from macaws to gorillas, to polar bears appear, this list of performers includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, and Ralph Fiennes. After what felt like mostly lifeless voice performances in Disney’s Lion King, it was a nice change to have a crew that felt completely into playing animals. The only real issue is how the humor plays into contemporary attitudes for a film set in the Victorian era. It’s at times off-putting to hear Cena act like a polar bear that just stepped off a truck, or have Spencer lean into making her duck a sassy black lady.
On the human side, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, and Jim Broadbent are the veteran actors having the time of their lives hamming it up. Sheen, in particular, plays a villain obsessed with Dolittle, with motivations so shallow that it can only work by having a sniveling “Michael Sheen type” in the role. Banderas, meanwhile, gets to help show why this movie has a $175 million budget, as his lavish pirate home is filled with excess designs, while he shows up in gold silk pajamas to take over any given scene. There are also a couple of kids, Harry Collett as Dolittle’s self-appointed apprentice and Carmel Laniado as Lady Rose, the young lady whom the film decides doesn’t need to join the boys on their adventure (so she does little with Dolittle).
The actual journey plays into a lot of areas that feel familiar. That’s not inherently bad, but Dolittle does try and take the path towards humor any chance it gets. For a film that opens with our hero as a grieving recluse, I understand keeping him with a sadder attitude would not be all that exciting, but the attachment to him comes more from his power to talk to animals and the charm of Downey more than what’s written. That’s a forgivable tradeoff, I suppose. Still, the film does feel like it’s been held back from doing more than standard comedy-adventure routines.
Still, the movie does look very good, with some inventive animal-based ideas. Being on a ship for a good portion of the film, the use of humpback whales is an inspired one. Watching Downey’s interactions with all the various animals, from walking sticks to an octopus, shows he’s once again one of the best of the acclaimed actors when it comes to interacting with presumably nothing or very little, while filming was taking place (recall all the holograph screens in the Iron Man films). All of this goes a long way in developing a world for Dolittle to exist in, which at least keeps the film out of a constricting mold.
Whether or not Dolittle is the character who needed a big return, there’s an effort put in by the cast to make this all work. They are aided by terrific visuals, and a huge dose of comedy to ideally appeal to everyone. The story is pretty thin, and some more nuance would have been welcome (even The Adventures of Tintin had some neat thematic ideas to go along with the spectacle), but there’s a watchable fantasy adventure here. I may not be squawking and squeaking the praises about Dolittle in the months to come, but it was satisfying.