Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 3, 2020)
As I’ve discussed over the years, January used to be a “dumping ground” for movies the studios thought would bomb. This changed over time, though, as a few high-grossing January releases demonstrated audiences would see films that appealed to them whenever they hit the screens.
Nonetheless, the “January graveyard” concept continues to hold true much of the time, and 2020’s Dolittle reinforces it. With a massive $175 million budget and a slew of stars involved, this looked like a tentpole movie, not something to get thrown into the market mid-January.
Despite a bevy of bad reviews and that poor release date, Dolittle managed to find a decent audience, as it took in $245 million worldwide. Due to that huge budget, it still lost buckets of money, but at least it avoided “utter debacle” status like 2019’s Cats.
Based on a series of children’s books that started in 1920, Dolittle introduces us to Doctor John Dolittle (Robert Downey, Jr.), a Victorian-era Welsh veterinarian who can speak to animals. Alas, when his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) dies, he turns recluse and avoids humans entirely, content to reside solely with his creature friends.
This begins to change when Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) becomes ill. The only cure for her malady resides on a magical island – and due to his ability to communicate with critters, Dolittle stands as the only man who can retrieve it.
As noted, Dolittle earned enough money to avoid “bomb” status. Sure, it never remotely approached profitability, but it could’ve been a true disaster.
Which puts it in the company of 1967’s Doctor Dolittle, another expensive film that underperformed at the box office. The 1967 version didn’t truly flop, but it lost money.
When reinvented via 1998’s Dr. Dolittle, the property finally produced a hit. The Eddie Murphy version brought the story into modern day and opted for a more comedic bent, one that audiences appreciated, and it produced a few sequels.
That seems unlikely to happen with the 2020 Dolittle, though I could potentially see a direct-to-video continuation with none of this flick’s stars and a radically lower budget. Dolittle earned just enough for Universal to potentially spin it off to small screen releases.
If that happens, I expect much weaker production values and little star power, but probably not a steep drop in film quality. While not a poor film, Dolittle doesn’t live up to the promise that comes with its cast.
Not that we see most of the famous actors onscreen. In terms of well-known humans, only Downey, Michael Sheen and Antonion Banderas show their faces.
However, Dolittle boasts an excellent cast as the voices of the many animals we find. We get performers like John Cena, Ralph Fiennes, Octavia Spencer, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Craig Robinson, Tom Holland and plenty of other familiar names here.
All of them do fine, but few rise above the safe kiddie-friendly tone of the movie. That sounds snarky, like I expect Dolittle to provide something edgy, which I don’t.
However, I think the movie wants to come across as wittier and more dynamic than it is. Even with all those well-known performers, the movie consistently takes the path of least resistance, so expect the animal characters to follow predictable lines without much to challenge the audience.
This might not become a problem if Dolittle found some inspiration elsewhere, but instead, it simply regurgitates adventure film clichés without its own POV. Sure, the inclusion of the talking animals adds a twist, but not enough of one to allow the material to rise above its genre confines.
As such, Dolittle ambles about as a movie in search of a coherent narrative. While it pursues one simple goal – Dolittle’s acquisition of the substance to cure the queen – it meanders on its way there and comes across as random and oddly episodic.
Much of Dolittle gives off the aroma of “film by committee”, as it seems like a project that required 14 producer approvals before it could shoot a scene. Everything here seems sanitized for the broadest consumption, and that stifles potential creativity.
Despite these issues, Dolittle manages rudimentary entertainment value, and how well it works seems likely to reflect the age of the viewer. The younger, the better, as littler ones will likely feel enchanted by the action shenanigans and the funny talking animals.
Even this 53-year-old managed to discover occasional minor charms, mainly because said 53-year-old loves animals. This simple fun of the interactions among so many species can bring a smile to the face of someone with an affection for furry critters.
Still, even the cutest beasts can only enchant for so long. At no point does Dolittle turn into a cinematic embarrassment, but it squanders a lot of talent to become a fairly lackluster adventure.
Footnote: a tag scene appears midway into the end credits.