The new year is young, but thank goodness we didn’t have to wait more than a couple of weeks into it to hit our first big-budget, military-grade stink-bomb of 2020.
Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Gold, and an Oscar-winner for writing Traffic) reworks the character of Doctor John Dolittle, who was the central character of a series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting beginning in 1920. His adventures communicating with animals (and a few humans) has been adapted for the big screen a few times already, mostly famously with Rex Harrison in the 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, and a pair of Dr. Dolittle films (one in 1998, the other in 2001) starring Eddie Murphy.
The latest incarnation stars Robert Downey Jr. as a famed 19th century physician whose wife passed away seven years earlier, and ever since he has confined himself to a life of solitude behind the high walls of his country estate where he lives and communicates with a variety of common and exotic animals (in their various languages, although thankfully we hear most everything in English). But when the young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) falls gravely ill, her young ward Lady Rose (newcomer Carmel Laniado) is dispatched to pull Dolittle out of hiding to cure Her Majesty. Just as Rose arrives, she meets a local boy, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who is seeking the doctor’s help as well, to help heal a squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson) he accidentally shot while being forced to go hunting.
When he isn’t moaning and screeching with the animals, the first thing you notice about Downey’s performance is his odd choice of accent, which sounds vaguely Scottish. At this point, Dolittle is living like a long-bearded wild man (more Jack Sparrow than Tony Stark), hiding from any outside visitors, but eventually he does save the squirrel’s life and agrees to help the Queen as well and take on young Tommy as his provisional apprentice.
The sights and sounds of Dr. Dolittle conversing with animals ranging from a dog wearing glasses (voiced by Tom Holland) to a gorilla with PTSD (Rami Malek), a polar bear (John Cena) arguing constantly with an ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), as well as other key animals voiced by the likes of Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Jason Mantzoukas, and even Marion Cotillard as a fox (naturally), is all meant to bring about a sense of wonder and amazement. Instead, the film is such a colossal bummer (Dolittle is in deep depression for most of the film) and so in love with how weird it thinks it’s being, that it takes the wind and energy out of every possible aspect of Dolittle that might be fantastical. The two younger actors spend most of their time on screen staring in wonder with big eyes that only show us their empty souls within. When people talk about stereotypical child actors, they’re talking about these two, both of whom I’m sure could be better with different material.
Dolittle, along with his animals and young humans, set out on an adventure to acquire the rare ingredients needed to save the Queen. There is something of a conspiracy afoot that involves some of the Queen’s close advisors (including one played by Jim Broadbent) and her personal physician, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), who is sent after Dolittle to make sure his mission fails. We’re also treated to a visit to Dolittle’s late wife’s father (Antonio Banderas, reminding us why he’s never been Oscar nominated before this week), as well as a tiger voiced by Ralph Fiennes and a dragon, appropriately voiced by Frances de la Tour. There’s no shortage of voice and acting talent afoot in this movie. Add to that the use of Guillermo del Toro’s regular cinematographer (Guillermo Navarro, who also lensed two of the three Night at the Museum films, which makes a big more sense when watching Dolittle) and Danny Elfman providing the score, and you have the makings of one damn fine film…or so you’d think.
Instead, what we get feels cluttered, noisy and dark with not much of an adventure to speak of. I watched Downey intently at times, looking for any clue to what John Dolittle might be thinking other than generic sadness. Hell, the squirrel emotes more than he does. There is a small paw-full of funny line deliveries by the voice actors, and that’s largely what makes the film in any way watchable. The animal’s effects are passable but largely unimpressive, and the sparse action sequences are in desperate need of some inspiration.
By the end, I was bored, miffed, and exhausted by watching so many people work so hard to achieve mediocrity.
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