Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek. Directed by Stephen Gaghan.
The legacy of the Hugh Lofting creation is one of enduring popularity. From the Rex Harrison starring musical film, to the two popular Eddie Murphy starring comedies in the 90s, the character of Doctor John Dolittle is one that really lends itself to family-friendly comedy. Which begs the question: why is this new version, previously called The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, so awful?
Going back to the source novels, Dolittle finds the doctor in isolation, only talking to his animal friends, when news comes that Queen Victoria is near death and only a magical fruit his late wife knew of can cure her, so he and his animal friends – and a young boy looking to join his practice – set off to find this magical fruit, pursued by the royal guard.
Dolittle marks the first film for Robert Downey Jr post-Tony Stark/Iron Man, and his first film since 2014’s The Judge and Chef to star him not as the Marvel superhero – aside from a cameo in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. Downey choosing this film makes sense, it’s a family friendly blockbuster that means he’ll get his suppressed paycheque along with what would appear to be guaranteed box office returns.
The role also plays to Downey’s strengths, while being able to lead films, his recent run of films has been more about him playing eccentric types, normally modelled on Howard Hughes. Stark is one of those types, a fast talking, genius uneasy with people. Sherlock Holmes was another, strumming a violin, and talking in fast clipped English. Dolittle offers a new challenge – Welsh. And it crushes Downey. It turns out the extent of his Welsh accent abilities is adding “is it” to the end of every other sentence and for the most part his dialogue sounds like it was re-dubbed.
Which would make sense given the behind-the-scenes issues the film faced. The first fatal flaw the producers made was hiring director Stephen Gaghan for this project. That’s not a slight against Gaghan who won an Oscar in 2001 for his screenplay for Traffic, and was nominated again in 2006 for writing Syriana, and while directing that and 2016’s Gold played to his strengths, the visual effects magic of a family film is not in the director’s remit.
The film’s behind the scenes issues, being pushed back twice, changing it’s name, Gaghan being fired from directing because he “would figure it out on the day” instead of working with the VFX team to work out where the CGI animals would be. This is an issue as despite decent VFX work the animals never look real, and there’s no unity in how to truly show the animals. To compare it to the Eddie Murphy film in which generally it was real animals with edited mouths, or puppets, this time around the animals never feel like real animals but like animals from a cartoon where they have human mannerisms. Characters like a rabbit, or a dragon fly adopt humanistic actions, while others act like animals that happen to talk English.
The reshoots are the be all and end all of the film, after all Rogue One had a troubled production in which Gareth Edwards was replaced by Tony Gilroy and the film turned out fantastically, but here there’s clearly no unified idea on what the film wants to be. The supporting cast are left hamming it up – Jessie Buckley spends all her time in bed sleeping, Jim Broadbent tries to stay awake, Antonio Banderas appears to be from a different more fun film and Michael Sheen never looks a co-star in the eyes because he’s busy looking at the big pile of money he was given.
The voice acting is where the re-writes show – John Cena’s anachronistic polar bear Yoshi says things like “bro” even though it’s 1830 something. The voice cast includes Emma Thompson as a parrot, Rami Malek as a gorilla, Tom Holland as a dog, Octavia Spencer as a duck, Ralph Feinnes as a tiger, Selena Gomez as a giraffe and Craig Robinson – the only decent animal character – as a paranoid squirrel going through a sort of Heart of Darkness crisis.
The entire film builds from one poorly thought out set piece to another, stopping every so often to give poorly thought out character development. Dolittle warms to Harry Collet’s young apprentice over the course of one conversation, the squirrel turns from paranoid mess to considering everyone his family in the space of a scene, there’s an implication that Dolittle is a drunk.
And then the climax comes in which both the royal navy and Dolittle with his animals face off against a giant Frances de la Tour voiced dragon, and solve their issue by giving her a colonoscopy to remove a bagpipe. Apparently this was on the urging of Downey himself, and the large fart the dragon lets out is possible the ost damning review the film can get.
The film was shot by Guillermo Novarro a collaborator of Del Toro, and scored by Danny Elfman, and yet the camera work is shoddy, and the music is unmemorable. The film opens with a nice animated prologue in an interesting animation style, and really for this film to work, it should have been done entirely in that style for the duration.
The film is, therefore, a failure and it’s box office is clearly showing that. The fart jokes and slapstick might work for the younger audience members who like the talking animals, but for those who loved Downey’s turns as Holmes or Stark, this poorly written, embarrassing plod won’t do much for them. In fact it’ll Dolittle.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.