Jacob Richardson | 16/01/2019
Against all the odds, after a troubled production and a bevvy of rumors, Dolittle makes it to the screen not only in one piece, but as a fairly enjoyable, perfectly OK piece at that.
Dr Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) has shut himself away from the world after the death of his wife, living only with his assortment of animals and refusing to see people or patients. However, when Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) comes calling asking for Dolittle to help a sick Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), and Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) too barges in begging Dolittle to help an injured squirrel, Dr Dolittle once again picks up the mantle to find a cure for a deadly poison. He and his eclectic cast of animalia must avoid the perils of Dr Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen), Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) in the process.
For a film so plagued by production issues, Dolittle is something of a wonder. With extensive reshoots, reports of director Stephen Gaghan not adequately preparing shots for CGI animals to be added in, script rewrites and casting changes, Dolittle seemed poised for a Cats level disaster. Remarkably, what we get in a perfectly functional, somewhat entertaining (although by no means good) film which will work well for children and families.
What Gaghan does well is to balance the action, drama and humor of this piece. In particular, his work with the animals from a balance perspective is great - most are memorable, and all get a moment to shine. In particular, the back and forth between John Cena’s polar bear Yoshi and Kumail Nanjiani’s ostrich Plimpton is frequently rewarding. He also creates a relatively fantastical portrait of Dolittle’s life in his manor, which gadgetry and improbable animal help in abundance.
From an acting perspective, both Laniado and Collett are excellent and compelling. The issues begin to stem from the difference in performance by Robert Downey Jr and those around him. Downey Jr takes a fun but somewhat serious tone, similar to his Sherlock Holmes. He is also sporting a wildly varying accent that seems to vacillate between English, Scottish, American and South African depending on the moment. Nevertheless, the real issues emerge when he is stacked up against Banderas and Sheen, who are both hamming it up in the extreme. This slight tonal discrepancy makes Downey Jr’s performance feel almost too serious.
The animals are rendered well enough from an effects point of view. These aren’t your photorealistic Lion King-esque portrayals, but then again they don’t have to be. And that sentiment stretches to the plot, and really the movie as a whole. There isn’t anything really new or exciting here, but it does exactly what it says on the cover, in a relatively entertaining way and without too many dramas, and for kids and families looking to while away some weekend or school holiday hours, that’s probably all you need.
Dolittle isn’t great, but shockingly for such a troubled production, it’s also not bad.