Dolittle (2020) review: this new take on the beloved character is a bit lost at sea

Robert Downey Jr. talks to the animals in the strangest possible way, as the reboot Dolittle feels uncertain of itself.

They always say it is a bit of a bad sign with a project when it keeps getting delayed. Sometimes, a long wait can actually turn in an unexpected classic, other times and (in honesty) more commonly a film is in production that long it begins to lose a sense of what it really is anymore. Unfortunately in the case of Dolittle, a movie based on Hugh Lofting’s beloved character and inspired by his second book “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle”, it is a case of the latter. As the much-publicised and increasingly baffling production woes, rewrites and inflated budgeting, that supposedly were a constant in making this film, have showed in the final product, which is disappointingly ramshackle in nature.

Mega-star Robert Downey Jr. headlines his first non-MCU lead blockbuster role in years, in a part that seemed perfect, what better way for the animal communicating doctor to be re-introduced to audiences? In fact, as an animal lover myself, it’s not hard to see that the heart at the core of this costly reboot is in the right place. The film concerns a dishevelled and reclusive Dr. Dolittle (Downey Jr.) still impacted by the tragic loss of his wife at sea years ago, until he is called back into action when the Queen sends for him specifically, as her health is mysteriously fading, with a potential cure only attainable by taking a daring voyage across the seas, accompanied by his animal pals, and kind hearted young lad Tommy (Harry Collett) who doesn’t feel he fits in with the rest of the world.

Downey Jr.’s production company (run alongside his wife Susan Downey) were behind the film and seemingly the initial intention was to bring in the youngsters on a magical adventure celebrating the animal kingdom and this iconic protagonist. Again, this is a noble intention, but while some very young children may have a giggle with this, director Stephen Gaghan’s vessel in its entirety leaks like a sieve. The screenplay by Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand cannot quite make up its mind where it is coming from in adapting the source material. Nor can it quite decide just what it wants to be. As it goes on, this becomes far more than just a loving ode to the animals, it transforms into a The BFG-esque story of childhood, then becomes a globetrotting Around the World in 80 Days-like caper, before nosediving rather randomly into full-on fantasy. The unevenness of the film is likely attributed to its many reshoots and changes in direction over the years but even hectic productions can yield crazy final products that are just fun in how bonkers they end up being but Dolittle just feels misguided.

The CGI-heavy adventure does offer some lovely sights and most of the animals are quite well-rendered, even if some effects and set pieces show up as  a bit clunky but, similar to Danny Elfman’s pleasant but ultimately forgettable score, this aesthetic does the trick but not much more and some things are needless. The now infamous anal blockage fart gag for instance, why on earth spend so much money changing what item you are removing digitally from a CG dragon’s backside?! And this isn’t the only strange decision made here.

Perhaps the biggest thing about this film is some of the surprisingly wonky performances, namely Robert Downey Jr’s eccentric lead turn, with that bizarrely decided upon Welsh accent…which veers about almost uncontrollably throughout and often distracts you, as you spend precious time wondering why didn’t he just do English or American, instead of paying attention to some of the film’s puzzling lore? Other performances are a tad wonky or stilted too, like Collett’s well meaning secondary protagonist, or Antonio Banderas’ oddly panto-like appearance and the villainous Michael Sheen, who appears to be doing a less effective impersonation of Tim Curry. That said, the animals themselves are mostly fun – the best of which being John Cena’s cool Polar Bear Yoshi – and there is enjoyment to be had playing spot the starry voice actor behind the animal.

Overall, despite its many faults, Dolittle is not the out and out travesty it has been made out to be, the pieces are all there, but it feels like they were put-together by one of the animal’s themselves, who jumped in and had a go, rather than just letting the doc do his job.

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