A new chapter begins in the career of Robert Downey Jr., having said goodbye to his role as Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which spanned 11 years in 10 movies. And the first page of this new chapter is Dolittle, another cinematic version of Doctor Dolittle, a veterinarian who speaks the languages of animals created by British author Hugh Lofting. With this film, Downey becomes the third actor to portray the character on the big screen, after Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy.
In this version of the story, Downey’s John Dolittle has been granted a large estate full of animals by the Queen, who recognized his capacity to care for and about animals. Following the death of his wife, he closes off his home to live only with his animals, isolated from other people. That is until Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a representative of Buckingham Palace, arrives to request Dolittle’s presence at the Palace, as the Queen is gravely ill and has specifically asked for him to treat her. Dolittle initially refuses, before finally deciding to go after some convincing from his animals.
The movie is told through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), an animal-loving boy from a family of hunters. On a hunting trip, Stubbins accidentally shoots a squirrel while trying to miss a duck he’s supposed to be hunting. He is found by a parrot who calls herself Polly (Emma Thompson), who guides him to the Dolittle estate, arriving just as Lady Rose does. Seeing Dolittle operate on the squirrel and his ability to communicate with the animals convinces Stubbins to follow Dolittle and make himself his apprentice.
A choice was made to have Dolittle speak with a Welsh accent in this movie, as well as speaking in a strange, almost whispering voice, and this is clearly something that Downey struggled with. It’s apparent that much, if not most, of Downey’s lines had to be re-recorded, as a lot of the time Dolittle speaks there is great effort in hiding Downey’s mouth, either through reverse angles that don’t show his face or objects obstructing the view of his mouth. In a handful of scenes where the film can’t cut away from his face, you can see his mouth movement doesn’t sync perfectly with the dialogue, most likely as a result of re-recording lines.
The altered voice does nothing to add to his performance, makes his lines more difficult to hear on top of him using an accent he’s not comfortable with, and feels distracting and unnatural, especially since a lot of the time we don’t actually see that voice coming out of his mouth. We all know how Robert Downey Jr. sounds like, and his voice here is different enough to feel strange supposedly coming from him, but too detached and not distinct enough to be convincing that this is just a character who naturally sounds like that when he speaks.
The movie is clearly meant for children, and as such the writers seem to think they can get away with doing the bare minimum for most of the characters. Dolittle aside, no character has an arc as much as they start out one way, and end up another with little to nothing in between. In one scene two characters are shown to be at odds with one another, in the next scene they’re together they make peace. Having not understood the animals at all in the beginning of the film, he has one scene in which he begins to understand what the animals are saying. From this scene on, he is able to fluently communicate with them, and we are never told how he accomplishes this. Towards the end of the movie, Dolittle stands up to announce that all these character’s stories have been resolved, as if we’re just meant to take his word for it.
There’s also a strange recurring trait in the animal characters, where at different points these animals talk about issues they have with one of their parents. Ralph Fiennes’ character, a tiger called Barry, talks about how he never feels like he’s good enough for his mother (a moment played for laughs), and then two of Dolittle’s companion bond over being abandoned by their fathers. They’re cheap gags to begin with (a polar bear said his father left “for a pack of seals” and never came back), but they’re pretty uncomfortable themes to bring up in a film meant for families.
But the movie isn’t without at least some surface-level charms. It’s fast-paced with a steady stream of jokes – some of which land better than others – and accentuated by colorful visuals and a fun musical score that creates a consistently light and jovial tone.
The cast is definitely the movie’s best asset. Ill-advised speaking voice decisions aside, Downey single-handedly carries the movie’s emotional weight successfully. John Cena and Kumail Nanjiani are the standouts among the all-star voice cast, and Michael Sheen’s larger than life performance as the villainous Dr. Mudfly is particularly entertaining. The issue being that, Downey aside, the cast is stuck working with characters that could be generously described as one-note, who rarely get to stretch beyond this one particular trait they have.
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Superficial charm can’t save a film with poor characterization as well as a bizarre and ultimately disappointing lead performance.
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