DIRECTED BY: STEPHEN GAGHAN/2020
By now the majority of the reviews have been published and they are ripping Robert Downey, Jr.’s next starring role, post-Avengers: Endgame, the adaptation of the classic character of Dr. Dolittle, by creator Hugh Lofting. Everything from Downey’s accent, to the body function jokes that populate Dolittle, are now well documented. That being said, I’d like to offer a contrary opinion. Sure the criticisms all have merit, but my experience with Dolittle was a little more positive than those reviews calling it the next “Cats” (nothing is that bad). When all is said and done, Dolittle is a fun family adventure, and Robert Downey, Jr. might have found his next franchise.
Dr. John Dolittle (Downey, Jr.) and his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) have lived their lives taking adventures and helping animals all over the globe. Due to this, and their particular help to the queen of England, they were granted a large estate where animals could live and thrive in safety and security. There, the couple would treat the needs of animals from anyone who brought them. Given John’s ability to speak to animals and understand them, unlikely animals, who might be natural predators to the others on the estate, were seen living in harmony with one another. Everything was perfect, until one day.
While on an adventure, Lily was lost at sea, while her husband was back at home caring for their animal patients. Devastated, John had closed the gates of the estate and ceased from practicing his craft. Years later, a young boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), wonders into his estate with a hurt squirrel named Kevin (voiced by Craig Robinson). Also, an emissary from the queen, named Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), has arrived seeking Dolittle’s help as the queen has fallen gravely ill. Still in a deep depression, Dolittle shoos them all away, until he realizes that his estate, which protects the many animals that have come to live there from he and Lily’s adventures, will be lost as it is contingent on the queen’s life. If she dies, the estate goes back to the state.
As Dolittle goes to see the queen, he is reacquainted with a former colleague from the University, Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen), and comes to discover that the only thing that can save the queen is the very thing Lily had set off to find on her fateful final adventure. To save Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), Dolittle is going to have to take his new apprentice, which is Tommy Stubbins who announced he was Dolittle’s apprentice, as well as some of his most trusted animals to save the day. He is also going to have to obtain some help from Lily’s father, King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who still holds John Dolittle responsible for the loss of his daughter.
The cast of animals that gather around John Dolittle are voiced by an all-star cast. There is Poly (Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), Yoshi (John Cena), Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), and Jip (Tom Holland). Other animals included Barry (Ralph Fiennes), Betsy (Selena Gomez), Tutu (Marion Cotillard), James the Dragonfly (Jason Mantzoukas), and an actual dragon (Frances de la Tour). There are also many more who pop in an out of the scenes.
While the biggest criticism I would have would be the various fart jokes, and other bodily humor that too often is the lowest common denominator type of comedy that often is present in these sorts of films, they continued to be used precisely because they are a continuous source of laughs for the audience. Several of these continue to land, while others do not, with some actually being cringe-worthy. Some of the voice-work for the animals is extremely strong, which seems to be the source of criticism for Downey’s performance in contrast.
These are all valid, yet I found myself still greatly enjoying this film. Downey, Jr., though rather dour, given the hurt his character has suffered, still has a charismatic quality to his character that begins to open up as the narrative goes along. He starts to become the Dolittle that everyone loved prior to Lily’s death, and this film serves almost as a reboot for him in a way. If he can finish Lily’s quest, then maybe he can begin to contribute again, and in so doing, honor her legacy. He also will find that he much knowledge to pass on to Tommy Stubbins who may have some of the same gifts John does.
All of this to say, that even in the face of valid criticisms, Dolittle still works. It has moments of fun and adventure, moments of authentic sadness and loss, over-the-top villains, talking animals, and all of the ingredients to appeal to a wide cross-section of ages. Most important, Dolittle has its heart in the right place. The values it ultimately wants to champion are the things we should. Attributes like kindness, honesty, and perseverance are all at the center of this adventure. So is forgiveness, confidence, and grace. Sure it is strange that Craig Robinson voices an American squirrel in England with no reason provided for him being across the pond on another continent. This is a valid criticism, but ultimately it services a story that is more than the collective sum of its shortcomings, and from that perspective, Dolittle deserves its place at the theaters…especially in January.
Given the opportunity, Robert Downey, Jr. could find a way to make this a legitimate franchise, filled with other adventures of Dr. John Dolittle….albeit for a different type of audience than that of his Avengers followers. Dolittle has many flaws, but it ultimately overcomes them to deliver a film that is fun for the whole family, focusing on what is truly important in the process.