It’s surprising to say, but out of all the iterations of the Dolittle story, the seeming trashy Eddie Murphy ones are the best. They were able to capture the ridiculousness of the premise of a doctor who communicates with animals best. The Rex Harrison version was an absolute disaster both in its boring musical numbers as well as convoluted and bland narrative. The latest attempt from Universal is an absolute mess of a movie with an embarrassing amount of riches at its disposal.
Dolittle (2019) is a new take on the Hugh Lofting children’s books. In this version the famed Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) is tasked with finding a mysterious fruit that will save the sick Queen of England (Jessie Buckley). He is followed on his travails by his most loyal animal followers and the admiring boy Stubbins (Harry Collett).
The plot summary is as simplified as I could make it, because the entire story is so confused about what it wants to be that it trips over itself with every step. The character of Dolittle is also given a tragic love story in his past, as well as a seeming financial motivation to come out of his desolation; multiple villains seem to sprout up every five minutes, such as a cartoonish Michael Sheen as a rival doctor or Antonio Banderas as a king of Pirates, only for these same characters to disappear moments later. The mythology and capabilities of this world are clearly not defined with a clash of realism and fantasy bringing an ugly hue to the whole picture. The whole plot also seemed to be incredibly rushed and crammed spending only seconds at points that could have informed a whole film. This causes for every interaction and sequence to feel short-lived and meaningless. No action seems to push the story forward, instead discoveries fall on the characters’ laps, and solutions magically appear (aka lazy writing).
Then there were the characters themselves, which all seem to be shallow gimmicks. The young Collett is given absolutely nothing to do in the film, and he could easily be removed from the entire narrative and the conclusion would be exactly the same. The animal characters themselves are only shown to be one-off jokes, such as a polar bear who’s always cold, a thirsty for revenge squirrel, and a fearful gorilla. Even Dolittle, who is the only character who is given an arc, is transformed in such a predictable and lazy way. Only Rami Malek, who voices the fearful gorilla, brings some sense of a greater depth that didn’t exist in the script.
Downey Jr.’s charm could not have rescued this chaos. It is astounding that over $150 million were spent on such a disaster, which bring about notable visual effects and a voice cast that ranges from Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson to Kumail Nanjiani and John Cena. In the end, Dolittle was an embarrassing attempt at rebooting a family franchise, which should have stayed dormant after Murphy hung up the lab-coat.