Dolittle (2020) Review

Dolittle seriously needs a doctor. Not just a routine medical checkup. More like a surgery that would take hours to find out what the heck is wrong with this movie.

Formerly known as The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, the title got shortened and it was originally set to be released last year. Then, poor test screenings happen to the point that Universal ordered extensive reshoots by bringing in directors Chris McKay (2017’s The Lego Batman Movie) and Jonathan Liebesman (2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) to polish the film.

I mean, how could this possibly be? It has Robert Downey Jr. playing the title role and even boasts an all-star voice cast featuring the likes of Tom Holland, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani and Emma Thompson. Not to forget a huge totalling US$175 million at Stephen Gaghan’s disposal. Which also lies the biggest problem of them all: the director himself. Not that he’s a rookie director, given the fact that Gaghan was responsible for writing the Oscar-winning Traffic (2000) and directed George Clooney in Syriana (2005). But his resume says nothing about anything that rhymed with “children’s story” or “effects-laden blockbuster”. Something that he’s clearly lacking the sufficient experience to pull off such a feat. This explains why the result turns out to be a cinematic mess of an epic proportion.

Other than the promising storybook-like animated prologue narrated by Emma Thompson, who voiced Polynesia the parrot, the rest of the movie quickly nosedives and barely recovers. The story — credited to Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand and Chris McKay — actually has potential lying somewhere in the movie, detailing the title doctor (Robert Downey Jr.) who has a unique gift of talking to animals. But after his wife’s (Kasia Smutniak’s Lily) tragically died during an ill-fated solo voyage, his life has since turned upside down and spending all his time locking himself inside the mansion as a recluse.

However, things changed when he met a boy (Harry Collett’s Tommy Stubbins) who wants to be his apprentice and a princess (Carmel Laniado’s Lady Rose) summoning Dolittle to cure the gravely-ill Queen of England (Jessie Buckley). After a few persuasions by the animals, Dolittle finally promises to take a look at the queen and discovers she has been poisoned. In order to find the cure, he has to set sail along with Stubbins and some of the animals to find a particular fruit.

While the CG animals may look photorealistic, the voice talents fail to deliver any lasting impressions. Blame it on the tepid screenplay, which can’t seem to find the right balance between attempting a would-be poignant adventure tale filled with self-discovery and redemption and a family-friendly comedy about talking animals. Even if Dolittle aims squarely for kids, the movie is strangely lacking the necessary bouncy vibe to make this work.

Not even the calibre and star power of Robert Downey Jr., his first big-budget movie post-MCU era can save the day pain. His weird British (?) accent annoys me the most, as he spends most of the time either whispering or mumbling his dialogues. I hate to say this but the actor who used to impress us with his Iron Man role is shockingly charmless in Dolittle. It’s kind of odd since the movie is reportedly his pet project and even did the film under his Team Downey production banner alongside his wife Susan.

The rest of the supporting actors simply go through the motion, with veteran actors like Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent both showing up as standard-issue antagonists while Harry Collett’s supposedly breakthrough performance as Dolittle’s apprentice Stubbins is largely forgettable. Finally, Antonio Banderas’s pirate king role of Rassouli look as if he’s here merely for an easy paycheck and just let his thick eye makeup do all the talking.

So much for a potential franchise-in-the-making, with Dolittle marks Universal’s second costly flop in the row after last year’s Cats. No doubt an early candidate as one of the worst movies of 2020.