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January 24, 2020
Dolittle (2020) --- “He's Not Exactly A People Person.”
Hello, Movie Buffs!
After losing his wife (Kasia Smutniak) several years earlier, the eccentric and famed veterinarian, Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) of Queen Victoria's (Jessie Buckley) England, hermits himself away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor with only his menagerie of exotic animals for company. But when Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) appears at his front door with an injured squirrel and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) brings news that the young queen falls gravely ill, the reluctant and reclusive Dr. Dolittle must embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island in search of a cure. Accompanied by Stubbins and a troop of animal friends (Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, and Emma Thompson), Dolittle crosses paths with old adversaries (Antonio Banderas and Michael Sheen), discovers wondrous creatures, and finds courage along the way. Will Dolittle and his friends succeed in saving the Queen or will they be too late? Directed by Stephen Gaghan (Gold), co-written alongside Dan Gregor (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Doug Mand (How I Met Your Mother), Chris McKay (Robot Chicken series), and Thomas Shepherd, Dolittle (2020) is primarily inspired by Hugh Lofting’s 1922 children’s novel The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.
In contrast to the beloved 1998 comedy starring Eddie Murphy, this Dolittle takes greater influence from its source material and the 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison that bombed box offices. Fashioning the film as a fairy-tale, director Gaghan uses animation to impart the eccentric physician’s backstory and what circumstances have led him to this point in life. Next, we are given quick introductions of certain characters and then thrust immediately into the adventure. It is a charming, humorous, and cute big-budget family film featuring one of the highest-paid actors of our time, loads of animated animals, and a supporting voice cast comprised of some notable and famous celebrities, and yet the story is too scattered and small to be taken seriously as a massive fantasy adventure. One opportunity that I believe the writers missed out on was how they tackled the Lady Rose’s character.
The story quite clearly paints the message that boys go on adventures while girls wait at home twiddling their thumbs. Considering how Lady Rose is portrayed in this film, there was simply no need for her to be in the film, except as a porcelain doll dressed in frills. Not much is given to her backstory and while most might assume that she is the Queen’s daughter, it doesn’t become clear until near the end that she is actually one of the Queen’s closest ladies-in-waiting. The writers could have made her Dolittle’s aspiring apprentice and a figurative reincarnation of his late wife’s brave and adventurous spirit. She could have been the driving force that Dolittle needed to return to the human world and put the past behind, continuing the legacy he and his wife started. But alas that never happened and I will be wondering what could have been if only the writers had taken a different and more modern approach.
The cast performances were surprisingly good, both from the live-action cast and the voice actors. The story relies heavily on contrasting characters like Kumail Nanjiani (Stuber, Lovebirds) as the cynical ostrich Plimpton and John Cena (Playing with Fire) as the upbeat polar bear Yoshi, who are constantly trading insults about each other’s appearances and abilities. Also, used as comic relief is Rami Malek (No Time To Die) as the anxious and cowardly gorilla Chee-Chee, who is similar to the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz, and Octavia Spencer (Ma!, Onward) as the enthusiastic but bird-brained duck Dab-Dab, who has a prosthetic webbed-foot. Emma Thompson (2021 Cruella) is perfect as the headstrong parrot, who serves as the film’s narrator and Dolittle's most trusted advisor. The villains - Antonio Banderas (The Laundromat) as the Pirate King, Rassouli, and Michael Sheen (Good Omens) as Dolittle’s old schoolmate rival, Dr. Blair Müdfly - were good for kids but lackluster for adults. Also worth mentioning are Harry Collett (Dunkirk), Carmel Laniado (A Christmas Carol mini-series), Craig Robinson (Hot Tub Time Machine), Tom Holland (Spies in Disguise, Spider-Man: Far From Home), Ralph Fiennes (The King’s Man), Selena Gomez (Hotel Transylvania), Marion Cotillard (Allied), Jason Mantzoukas (HBO’s Dickenson), Frances de la Tour (The Collection, Into the Woods), and Kasia Smutniak (From Paris with Love).
However, while all of these characters are good and descent in their respective roles, there are too many characters with too many narratives trying to take the lead. So, in order to try and combat this issue, the story lies most of its pressure on Robert Downey Jr.’s (Sherlock Holmes 3) shoulders, relying upon his portrayal of Dr. John Dolittle to pull the multiple narratives together into a more direct narrative. Although I wish some of the other characters had the chance to develop compelling arcs, Dolittle’s character arc and accompanied backstory demonstrate the debilitating effects that grief can have on an individual. Oddly the issue I find with his character is his accent, which slips between Scottish, Welsh, and English. For an American actor who has portrayed both Charlie Chaplin and Sherlock Holmes, it seems rather difficult for me to say that he might have dropped the ball a couple times here. Nonetheless, he still does a pretty good job as Dolittle and proves that despite playing one of the most iconic characters of the MCU for the last 10 plus years, he still has the talent and skills to do other work. On a side note, it was pretty interesting to see him switch between animal languages when talking to the different animals. This made it more relatable and believable for the audience.Overall, Dolittle (2020) is a fun and charming family-film that fails to be a massive fantasy adventure but is no less entertaining. The filmmakers had a lot of ideas that they wanted to utilize, they just needed a better way of directing and focusing all of their ideas into a more cohesive story. The story was good and carried its fair share of humor but the writers also missed out on an opportunity to make a Victorian-set story just a little bit more modern. The cast performance both live-action and voice-overs were good and funny but they also deserved to have better character arcs then what they were given. And while Robert Downey Jr. may be one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors as of 2020, the story should not solely rely upon his character arc to carry the story. Nevertheless, this is still an entertaining family film that the whole family will enjoy.
Final Vote --- 7.2 of 10 stars
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Doctor Dolittle (1997)
Dr. Dolittle (1998)
Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001)
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Playing with Fire (2019)
at 6:00 AM