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Blu-ray Review: Dolittle

May 5, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The character of Dr. John Dolittle, a veterinarian with the magic ability to talk to animals who first appeared in stories by English author Hugh Lofting roughly a century ago, has in the past been played on the big screen by Rex Harrison in the Oscar-winning 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, and by Eddie Murphy in the 1998 comedy of the same name.

Now Robert Downey Jr., fresh off of completing his arc as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, takes a swipe at playing the role in the plainly titled Dolittle, an expensive talking animal comedy that is nowhere near as good as it could have been, but also not the worst thing, either. It’s simply mindless, mediocre entertainment aimed at kids.

The film opens with a nicely done animated prologue that shows Dolittle’s past as a world-renowned veterinarian who used to travel the globe treating animals in need of help. But the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) has caused the eccentric, wild-haired doctor to become a recluse in his gated mansion in England that functions as a wildlife sanctuary for a variety of creatures great and small.

Dolittle’s solitude is shattered one day when he is visited by two human kids. The first is a boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a sensitive kid who accidentally injures a squirrel during a hunting trip with his uncle (Ralph Ineson) when he is trying to avoid firing at ducks. Tommy is led to Dolittle’s estate by his talking parrot Poly (Emma Thompson), in hopes that the doctor will be able to save the poor little creature’s life. The second is a girl, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who has travelled from Buckingham Palace to deliver the message that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is sick, and in need of his help.

In order to save the queen, Dolittle sets out on a voyage at sea in search of a healing plant that only grows on a mysterious island, and he is joined on this journey by Tommy, who gives himself the role of Dolittle’s apprentice. They are faced with adversarial forces in the form of Dolittle’s old medical school nemesis, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), as well as a pirate, King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who wants vengeance for personal reasons.

There are a few things to like about Dolittle, starting with the choice to do the film as a period piece, which keeps it more in line with Lofting’s original stories. The period production design is attractive, and the film features some strong special effects work, with the CGI animals convincingly interacting with the human cast. But Dolittle is also marred by a rushed and curiously uninvolving adventure story, as well as an uninspired script that often aims low with its humour.

In theory, the role of Dr. Dolittle is a natural fit for Downey Jr., who has previously portrayed eccentric geniuses Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. But he brings the bare minimum level of commitment to the role, including a highly questionable Scottish accent, and there is so much more that he could have done with the character. The film features a stacked voice cast to bring the animals to life, including Tom Holland as a dog, Rami Malek as a gorilla, John Cena as a polar bear, Ralph Fiennes as a tiger, Kumail Nanjiani as an ostrich, Octavia Spencer as a duck, Selena Gomez as a giraffe, Marion Cotillard as a fox, and Craig Robinson as the aforementioned squirrel.

The film is directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer behind Traffic and Syriana, and it actually ends up feeling overly ambitious. There are a lot of ideas thrown at the screen, and some of them are good, but the film feels slapdash in its construction and never quite coalesces together into a fully engaging whole. There are some enjoyable moments here, but Dolittle ends up feeling like less than the sum of its mildly entertaining parts.

With the high level of talent involved in Dolittle, there was reason to hope that this might have been the definitive version of the story, which does make the messiness of the final product feel like somewhat of a missed opportunity. But taken purely at face value, you could do a lot worse than Dolittle in terms of harmless family entertainment.

The Blu-ray also includes the six featurettes Talk to the Animals, RDJ & Harry: Mentor and Mentee, Becoming the Good Doctor, Antonio Banderas: Pirate King, The Wicked Dr. Müdfly, and A Most Unusual House.

Dolittle is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. It’s 101 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: April 7th, 2020

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