Everyone knows the story of Doctor Dolittle. A man, gifted (usually unexplained) with the ability to talk to animals. This is a story which has been rehashed several times - its origins within the Hugh Lofting children’s books in 1920, right up until Eddie Murphy’s 1998 film and its many sequels. Quite why there was a need to re-adapt the film is not made any clearer after viewing, but a cynic might err towards the potential for the film to utilise its cuddly-friendly-animal characters as a way to mass market the film to the very widest audience possible, allowing the filmmakers to neglect any notion of plot or meaning.
However, as I am not (yet) a complete cynic, perhaps there were other reasons to revive this age-old story. Sticking closer to Lofting’s original stories, Dolittle places Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr putting on a very bizarre Welsh accent for no apparent reason) at the heart of the story. In a short but sweet opening animation, Emma Thompson’s narrator/parrot Polynesia explains that the love of Dolittle’s life died prematurely whilst on an adventure, and he has been in mourning ever since. The dead wife inspired personal development story (or 'fridging') is a trope we’ve seen before, and it lands as it usually does here - as a cheap device to give the audience the idea that a very boring protagonist has got some sort of complexity to his character. Spoiler alert - he doesn’t.
Dolittle and his band of merry animals (which include Rami Malek as an anxious gorilla, John Cena as a polar bear who hates the cold, Kumail Nanjiani as a stressed out ostrich and Octavia Spencer as a duck with a wooden leg, amongst others) embark on a ‘perilous journey’ to obtain an antidote to cure an illness which has struck down the Queen. The plot is, to all intents and purposes, non-existent – instead, the film feels like a bunch of sketches loosely linked with a very thin story waving around somewhere in the background. Emma Thompson's parrot/narrator guides the story to begin with, but is then not heard from again until over an hour into the film - which makes you wonder why they decided to include any narration at all.
Dolittle is not terrible, but there are moments where it is abundantly clear that it could have been so much better which, in a way, makes it so much worse. There are occasions where it feels like the film is reaching for some sort of meaningful development or sentimentality, but is then constantly undermined by a fart joke or something similar (a moment with Kevin the injured squirrel sets this off from the very beginning). Of course, this is a film for children and so some level of juvenile humour is to be expected, but Dolittle doesn’t really give its audience anything but badly executed slapstick humour and not enough substance to keep anyone (particularly small children) engaged.
Another glaring omission is any layered humour, or jokes designed for adults also watching. It seems to forget that children’s films need to work, on some level, for the adults taking their children to watch them. Fundamentally, it just isn't funny.
When it comes down to it, Dolittle might keep the little ones entertained for half an hour with the funny talking animals, but it soon becomes mundane and overstretched – despite its already slim run time. Whilst it certainly isn't the worst children's film out there, it is quite disappointing considering the calibre of people involved. A few positives do stand out: Michael Sheen is really quite brilliant in ‘villain‘ role Dr. Blair Müdfly, and a couple of the voice actors namely, Malek, Craig Robinson and Jason Mantzoukas have jokes that do land, but sadly it's too far and few between.
Dolittle is released into UK cinemas on February 7th
Dir: Stephen Gaghan | Cast: Antonio Banderas, Jim Broadbent, Michael Sheen, Robert Downey Jr. | Writers: Chris McKay (screenplay by), Dan Gregor (screenplay by), Doug Mand (screenplay by), Hugh Lofting (character created by), Stephen Gaghan (screenplay by), Thomas Shepherd (screen story by)