- 15 Feb - 21 Feb, 2020
- 01 Feb - 07 Feb, 2020
Every imaginable indicator suggested that Dolittle, the umpteenth attempt to bring Hugh Lofting’s animal-obsessed doctor to the screen, would be a howling disaster. Putting aside the sheer redundancy of yet another retelling, it’s a film shot two years ago that test audiences hated, leading to reshoots the year after (with the help of a second director). That resulted in two release dates being missed, leaving us with an ominous January bow, a month typically associated with movies that closely resemble pungent dumpster fires.
After the last live-action take transported events to present-day America, with Eddie Murphy in the lead, this version goes back to the source and places us in Victorian England, with John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) mourning the death of his wife, closing himself off in an extravagant estate with only animals as company. His unusual skill for talking to them reduces his isolation, but his distrust and total avoidance of other humans limits his social life. When two children find their way on to his property, he’s forced to re-examine his ways.
The plot that follows is as convoluted as it is silly and involves some guff about Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), a sinister rival doctor (Michael Sheen) and a quest to a mysterious island with time allowed for a campy cameo from a recent Oscar nominee (Antonio Banderas) and a previous Oscar winner (Jim Broadbent).
One of the alleged reasons behind the reshoots was a need for more comedy and while the film is filled with attempted comic moments, they’re almost entirely lacklustre, snappy one-liners failing to snap and an overreliance on tiresome contemporary phrases.
Because behind, or inside, the animals is a host of big names, from Tom Holland to Emma Thompson to Ralph Fiennes to Rami Malek to Octavia Spencer, but their involvement is largely window dressing with no big-name standout to speak of. Arguably the best vocal performance is from a smaller name: Jason Mantzoukas as a romantic yet unreliable dragonfly, a vibrant comic actor more obviously suited to voice work. Downey, whose charm has mutated over the years into a suffocating smugness, is surprisingly bearable here, avoiding the sort of overly mannered, tic-filled turn that’s made him and Johnny Depp increasingly interchangeable.
It’s ultimately a miracle that despite the tortured production process, Dolittle can most generously be described as passable for young, undiscerning viewers. It won’t charm or amuse you particularly but it’s not a catastrophe, the highest praise we can muster.