Dolittle (2020) Review

Dolittle (2020) Review

Silence, beasts

By Chris Carter

At first, I believed Dolittle had some promise. The idea that Dolittle himself (played haphazardly by Robert Downey Jr.) is a kind-hearted man who cares about animals and their problems is gold in terms of a family film premise.

It’s been done before, sure, but even if you aren’t excited at the idea of talking animals, RDJ has the skills to pull it off and there’s a real chance of getting a “Babe meets National Treasure” project out of this (that’s how I would have pitched it, anyway). It’s a shame that nearly everyone involved is fighting to sabotage that simple concept.

Dolittle (2020) Review 1
Dolittle (2020) – Universal Pictures

Dolittle is a very odd film for a project that has flashes of authenticity. There’s just no growth; no real relationships formed with practically anyone, especially the human co-lead (Dolittle’s apprentice), Harry Collett’s Tommy Stubbins. Robert Downey Jr. staggers about in Jack Sparrow fashion (albeit not as over-the-top and with some ingenuity and know-how) over the course of the film while jokes at thrown at us rapid-fire: with little desire to actually explore or enjoy these characters.

There’s a good 40 minutes or so where Stubbins is absolutely non-essential, contributing nothing to the narrative in any sense as our heroes rush from place to place. One of the big issues is that you can so clearly see the parts where a hatchet (instead of a scalpel) was taken to the film and where it was patched up. Due to negative test screenings well-known producer Chris McKay was called in to essentially fix the film, but the result is a hodgepodge of a much larger epic.

The thing is, Dolittle both feels overly long and too short. One of the only good setpieces (which we can basically just call “Pirate’s Cove”) is seen only briefly before we’re taken into cramped generic village and palace sets. The purpose of this locale? A heist! Only we get to see a fraction of the actual robbery itself as the film cuts from the arrival to the island to the tail-end of the thievery in 30 seconds. It’s so bizarre. There’s probably a decent coherent film in there somewhere, but for now, it’s lost to time. Release the Snyder cut!

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(from left) Duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (John Cena), parrot Polynesia (Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek) in “Dolittle,” directed by Stephen Gaghan.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the comedy landed, but there are so many insane long-running jokes in Dolittle that absolutely don’t pay off, kind of like most of its character arcs. The villain (played by an animated Michael Sheen) is eccentric, yes, but completely hollow. We also get yet another very lame, very dated Godfather joke in a kid’s film (for the parents!) that’s somehow also rushed. If you want yet another groin shot with a “that’s gotta hurt!” follow-up, this is the picture for you.

It’s a slow burn in terms of how it grates. I wanted to like this film, and early on, I had hope that it would at least somewhat deliver. It has a good heart at its core; it just completely glosses over-communicating that in an effort to speed from place to place. It’s a shame, because a very small scale, smaller budget romp that mostly involved Dolittle at his estate hanging around with cute animals could have been a heartwarming and profitable little venture. No guts, no glory, I suppose.

Dolittle is good for an afternoon of dumb fun (emphasis on dumb) for the family while you’re half-watching it, but it could have been so much more. Was it studio meddling or just plain old failure to launch syndrome? Probably a bit of both.