Hugh Lofting’s stories of Doctor Dolittle have never done well in movie form; 1967’s musical version “Doctor Dolittle,” with Rex Harrison as the titular doc, flopped (although at 7 years old, I personally loved it). And the late ’90s “Dr. Dolittle” that starred Eddie Murphy should never have existed.
But that doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying to bring the animal-language-speaking doc back again for a new generation, because kids love that concept: being able to converse with pets. This latest incarnation, though, starring Robert Downey Jr. is just off-the-charts terrible.
The Story, Such as It Is
In Victorian-era England, Dr. Dolittle loses his wife Lily in a sailing tragedy and exiles himself from public life behind the walls of his animal sanctuary-manor, and grows a giant, caveman beard.
Then, young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a boy forced to go duck hunting by his trigger-happy dad, shoots by mistake an English red squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson) that speaks 21st-century Ebonics. Stubbins delivers the wounded black, I mean red, squirrel to Dolittle’s compound for doctoring.
Stubbins arrives at the same time as Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who delivers news to the doctor that the ailing young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has requested Dolittle’s presence at Buckingham Palace.
There’s political subterfuge afoot involving Dolittle’s former med-school classmate, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). Is somebody perhaps slowly poisoning the queen? The highly unkempt, probably somewhat zoo-smelling, odd-accent-mumbling (Is it Welsh? Is it Scottish?) Dr. Dolittle needs much convincing to leave his sanctuary. But eventually he and Stubbins go on a quest to locate a secret cure from a lost island, to restore the queen to health.
However! They are thwarted. Because this treasure hunt has directions as to how to complete it, which are missing because one King Rassouli (a scary pirate king played by Antonio Banderas) is the sole possessor of them. And Rassouli likes Dr. Dolittle as much as Captain Hook likes Peter Pan. And time is running out.
Did I mention that the doc hits the high seas in a ship full of his CGI menagerie friends? Of course he does. There’s a lot of voice-acting star power here, but it matters little; apart from Emma Thompson as a macaw named Poly, there’s too much chaos to figure out who’s playing who, or to care.
In case you take your kids, and find that you do care about who’s playing who: In addition to Thompson, and Kevin the squirrel played by Robinson, there’s Plimpton the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena), Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek), Dab-Dab the duck (Octavia Spencer), and Barry the tiger (Ralph Fiennes).
A Bad Case of Too Many Cooks
I’ll spare you the history of pre-production dosey-doeing and script enhancement and a million meetings and switcherooskis, all in the name of the bottom line, because this is Hollywood after all. But this “Dolittle” ends up being the Disney of the 1970s, known for cutesy, treacly mismatched kitsch, high sugar content, and low sustenance value. For example: Why is a menagerie of bad CGI animals, supposedly from the late 1800s, sounding like a bunch of millennials?
Basically, you’ve got highly frenetic, barely intelligible scenes with way too much synthetic visual fakery—and a paper-thin storyline. Is it only for kids? Yes. Is it even for kids? Not all kids. Just kindergartners. Is that necessarily a bad thing—shouldn’t kids have their own movies sometimes? Yes. But intentionally. Not unintentionally.
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Emma Thompson, Antonio Banderas, John Cena, Michael Sheen, Kumail Nanjiani, Ralph Fiennes, Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, Craig Robinson, Carmel Laniado, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 17, 2020
Rated: 1 star out of 5