Why does this happen, do you ask? Well, it’s because the dragon is angry, and thanks to Dolittle’s ability to speak to animals, he realises that after years of killing and eating bad guys, most of the anger is from digestion issues. So a few hands up the butt later, all is well.
I explain this to begin my review of Dolittle because it’s the perfect example of the movie doing something incredibly random for no reason, expecting it to be funny, and just falling flat on its face. Or butt, in this case. It happens time and time again, from the instant Downey comes on screen, through the final scene during the credits. The movie is shockingly unfunny, largely boring, and a waste of talent on par with...actually, come to think of it, it may set a new record in that regard.
Co-written and directed by Oscar winner Stephen Gaghan (yes, Oscar winner; he wrote the script for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic), Dolittle stars arguably the biggest movie star on the planet as the famous children’s book character with the ability to speak to animals. A character previously, and famously, played by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy. It begins with a fairly emotional prologue along the lines of Up, detailing Dolittle’s younger years and lost love. It’s all animated with voiceover and is by far the best thing in the movie. Once the live-action sets in, things take a dramatic turn.
Tommy is our in to Dolittle’s world.
Through the eyes of a young, animal-loving boy named Tommy (Harry Collett), we meet the modern Dolittle, who has become reclusive since the sad events of the prologue. However, a visit from a young princess (Carmel Laniado) alerts him that the Queen of England has taken ill and she needs him to look after her. Dolittle soon realises the Queen’s sickness is anything but normal and he must travel to a far-off island to pick fruit off a magical tree that no one is even sure exists. A tree that’s guarded by a scary dragon.
You can fill in the blanks from there.
Since this is a movie aimed at kids, you can forgive Dolittle for the mostly preposterous plot. The fact that the dragon is inexplicably the only mythical creature in the film, why a princess travelled alone across the country to find the doctor, the way the boy just never tells his family he’s leaving, or how there’s so little reverence for the Queen – the entire movie lacks believable motivation. That’s... fine. What you can’t forgive is how badly Dolittle squanders everything else.
Once we meet Dolittle, we also meet all of his animal friends, who are voiced by famous actors. Emma Thompson plays a macaw named Polynesia, Rami Malek is a gorilla named Chee-Chee, John Cena is a polar bear named Yoshi, Kumail Nanjiani is an ostrich named Plimpton, Octavia Spencer is a duck named Dab-Dab, Tom Holland is a dog named Jip, Craig Robinson is a squirrel named Kevin, Selena Gomez is a giraffe named Betsy, and Marion Cotillard is a fox named Tutu. And though they aren’t part of Dolittle’s gang, Ralph Fiennes plays a tiger named Barry and Jason Mantzoukas voices a dragonfly named James.
Most of the movie is this, two main characters and then lots of animals standing around.
That is a ridiculous amount of voice talent. Staggering, even. Multiple Oscars among them. And while some (but not all) of those actors manage to infuse their personality into their animal, the dialogue and humour being delivered by those voices is so unfunny it hurts. Again, one could maybe chalk that up to Dolittle just being a kid’s movie – but the screening I attended was filled with kids and adults, and the silence throughout was deafening. The jokes feel like they were written by people who don’t understand what funny is, but then, on occasion, stumble into a laugh out of sheer luck. There are a few moments that stand out, such as the banter between Cena’s polar bear and Nanjiani’s ostrich, or Robinson’s ongoing Star Trek logs, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
It also doesn’t help that most of the animals are in almost every single scene of the movie together. That bottleneck of characters works against the film greatly as it undercuts the ability for any of them to stand out or connect on an emotional level. They largely seem to be waiting for a chance to shout out a dumb joke, which most of the time end up falling flat and leaving everyone feeling uncomfortable.
Then there’s Downey, who does the whole film with an accent that’s meant to make him sound vaguely, indistinguishably foreign, but just makes him sound disinterested. In each scene, he feels like he’s focusing more on that accent than the emotion, which is probably accurate because his co-stars are largely CGI. His natural charisma is sporadic at best and the character never finds a balance of charming and goofy that tonally meshes with the movie he’s in. Plus, he so rarely seems to draw on the emotional grounding set up in the first act, you tend to forget that backstory even exists.
This image IS Dolittle. Antonio Banderas really trying. Robert Downey Jr...not.
The film’s other famous co-stars, all of whom play Dolittle’s antagonists, for sure know the movie they are in. Unfortunately, it’s as if they never spoke to each other about it and so it all clashes. Michael Sheen is a former rival of Dolittle’s who is hired to chase him and stop his mission from being a success. Jim Broadbent plays the soldier who delivers that order and Antonio Banderas is a powerful leader Dolittle must outwit to move ahead on his journey. Sheen plays his role so far over the top it’s almost too much. It’s as if his director just kept asking him to “go bigger” with the performance and he never stopped. Broadbent is similarly larger than life, though doesn’t have enough screentime to truly make an impact. And then there’s Banderas, whose understated performance with subtle hints of mania is so freaking great it feels like it belongs in a different movie.
By the time you get to the end (of the story and of the dragon), you can’t help but scratch your head and think “Why?” Why did all these people make this movie? It’s not funny. The story is predictable and unremarkable. There’s no strong character development and the relationships are piecemeal. The digital effects are actually good, considering how many there are, but what’s the point of that if it’s not in service of something?
Considering Dolittle is a huge effects film compared even to recent VFX-driven family films like Paddington 2 or Christopher Robin, the team surely had grand expectations when they set out on their journey. Some kind of massive crossover action-adventure in the mould of Pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps. But unlike all of those movies, the end product has no focus or confidence. It’s an absolute mess. Downey disappoints, the voice cast is misused, and the emotions fall flat. Dolittle is destined to be one of the worst films of 2020. It opens Friday.