REVIEW: ‘Dolittle’ is a True Kid’s Movie

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Dolittle

When it comes to Dr. Dolittle, many of my generation know about him from the Eddie Murphy movie and not so much the 1920s book which featured the titular character. Now, a new generation of kids are getting their own adaptation of the classic story in Stephen Gaghan‘s Dolittle which stars Robert Downey Jr. as the eccentric doctor. And to be honest, my experience watching this film was heightened by the fact that I got to sit next to a child who explained why he was so sad that Iron Man died in Avengers Endgame and why he was extremely happy to see him talk to animals. It was small, but it reminded me that this film and the choice of Downey as the lead was to hit a core of youngsters who have had him define one of the iconic heroes of their lives.

In Dolittle, Downey steps into the role of Dr. John Dolittle in this vivid reimagining of the classic tale. The film opens with an animated opening, providing us with background information on Dolittle and the story that the film is going to tell. In this animation, we learn the basics of Dr. John Dolittle. He’s loved by the whole of England, a friend of the Queen, and the esteemed doctor behind an animal refuge. When he falls in love with Lilly, he begins adventuring with her and they grow their family with a house filled with animals. But when she dies while adventuring, he decides to hermit himself away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor with only the animals for company. Disheveled and rejecting all human interaction, he closes the doors of his sanctuary to humans and animals alike.

Dolittle

But when the young queen (Jessie Buckley) falls gravely ill, a reluctant Dolittle is forced to set sail on an epic adventure to a mythical island in search of a cure, regaining his wit and courage as he crosses old adversaries and discovers wondrous creatures. Pushed by the animal friends around him, specifically a parrot who seems more like a mom than a parrot (Emma Thompson), he decides to leave his manor but not after a boy, Stubbins (Harry Collett),  comes to his door, looking to save a squirrel he accidentally wounded.

Taken aback by the doctor’s ability to speak with animals and inspired by his medical care, Stubbins decides to become Dolittle’s apprentices – without the doctor’s consent of course. What happens next is an adventure across the sea, into a cave, and a race against time as the Dolittle, his apprentice, and a boat full of animals do their best to save the queen.

With an anxious gorilla named Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), an enthusiastic but bird-brained duck name Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), a bickering duo of a cynical ostrich, Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani) and an upbeat polar bear named Yoshi (John Cena), and of course mother parrot, the cast is here to delight and make the children in the audience laugh. Each and every one of the cast that lends their voice to one of the CGI creatures brings energy and humor. But while there is an attempt to include some jokes with double meanings for the adults in the room, they don’t land and instead seem tonally separate from the rest of the attempts to bring laughs. The target of the film is children and while the majority of the comedy is suited for them, the attempts to hit parents miss the mark.

Dolittle

That said, Dolittle was a great joy, specifically in the interactions between Downey’s doctor and the animals he’s communicating with. Instead of always allowing viewers to see the communications in English, Downey is shown speaking their languages instead. Grunting, signaling, barking, he does it all and while it left me slightly uncomfortable, it was a choice that paid off in the theater as the children laughed. But, the film balances this, warping the lens slightly as it showed a transition in scene — in the first half of the film at least.

Additionally, the best of Downey comes when he gets to be physical. Featured in the trailer, the doctor’s tango with a tiger is entertaining, funny, and builds out the Dolittle, showcasing an adventurous side that was dormant at the start of the film. Coupled with two other moments in the film, one with a whale and another in a cave of fire, are fun to watch and create high points and climax in the adventure.

Sadly, one of the largest issues I had with the film was Downey’s waxing and waning accent that sounded Scottish, Irish, and of course American at times. But when it comes to critiquing a film that is not made for me, I need to step back a bit. While the accent was frustrating, the doctor’s actions entertained and his apprentice offered up a proxy for the audience to experience the world that Gaghan has brought to life. Additionally, the animals were all charming and Antonio Banderas’ appearance was one that depended on the story and excited me.

Overall, this isn’t a film for parents so much as it may be a film for their children. Adults will poke too many holes and try relentlessly to place Downey’s accent, but like the kids in my screening, yours will probably enjoy it.

Dolittle hits theaters nationwide on January 17.

Dolittle
  • 5/10
    Rating - 5/10
5/10

TL;DR

Overall, this isn’t a film for parents so much as it may be a film for their children. Adults will poke too many holes and try relentlessly to place Downey’s accent, but like the kids in my screening, yours will probably enjoy it.