Movie Review: ‘Dolittle’

Review by James Lindorf

The world’s most famous veterinarian is Dr. John Dolittle. At the height of his fame, he was honored by the Queen of England and married to one of the world’s greatest explorers and humanitarians, Lily Rassouli. Now, seven years after Lily was lost at sea Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) has locked himself away from the human world and given in to his eccentricities with only a menagerie of exotic animals for company. When the animal’s sanctuary and his isolation is threatened by the queen’s sudden illness a reluctant Dolittle is forced to set sail on an epic adventure in search of a mythical cure. Dolittle is joined on his quest by Stubbins (Harry Collett), his self-appointed apprentice, and a raucous group of animals. The ship’s crew includes an anxious gorilla (Rami Malek), an enthusiastic duck (Octavia Spencer), a cynical ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), an upbeat polar bear (John Cena) and a headstrong parrot (Emma Thompson). The PG-rated “Dolittle” was Written and Directed by Stephen Gaghan (Gold) for Universal Pictures and will be available everywhere, January 17th.

Whenever a trailer is released, it is dissected for quality, and the number of views in its first 24 hours and how many servers it takes down seems to point to eventual box-office success. How well “Dolittle” does financially will depend more on word of mouth than its trailer. While it won’t be a surprise nominee next award season, it is a sight better than its trailer led me to believe. What I expected to be 106 minutes of utter nonsense and fart jokes turned out to be much more. Downey still spends most of his time with a fluctuating accent and bumbling around like a mix of Tony Stark and Mr. Bean. However, he does get to put in quality emotional work over the loss of Lily and all the fear, sorrow, and anger that has filled Dolittle over the last seven years.

The biggest surprise of the film other than Antonia Banderas playing Lily’s father was the performance of Harry Collett as Tommy Stubbins. Harry is a relative newcomer with his most prominent role to date as the character “boy” in the 2017 hit “Dunkirk.” Stubbins doesn’t fit in with his family of hunters and is searching for his place in the world. He is the opposite of Dolittle and views the world with passion and wide-eyed optimism; and is relentless in his pursuit of being the second person in the world who can walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals.

Another weight on the scale for absurdity is the performance of Michael Sheen as Dr. Blair Müdfly. The Emmy and BAFTA-nominated actor is an asset to every production he joins. Still, in “Dolittle”, he isn’t asked to do much more than to be a mustache-twirling villain obsessed with the good doctor, even if he believes he is crazy. It is his talent as an actor that keeps the role from devolving into ridiculousness and having any degree of menacing.

“Dolittle” has enough going for it that it is worthy of a sequel, but the deciding factor will always be money. With so much CGI, the film had a budget of 175 million, add 100 million or so in advertising dollars, and there is a steep hill to climb to get the movie into the black. Those looking for counter-programming to action films and heavy dramas or who can see past the trailer should have fun and will discover that “Dolittle” doesn’t just speak to animals but children as well.

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