The first big surprise of 2020 is the fact that Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for writing Traffic and was nominated for another for Syriana, is the filmmaker responsible for Dolittle. Nothing else in his career suggested that he would be interested in helming a light romp aimed at children, featuring a character who has appeared in multiple iterations over the past 50+ years.
Finally released from the Iron Man suit he has inhabited for the past 12 years, Robert Downey Jr. plays the titular Dr. John Dolittle, a man whose ability to talk with animals once led to great acclaim in his native United Kingdom. But a personal tragedy made him retreat into solitude, a seclusion that is broken when two young people come searching for him for completely different reasons.
Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) tracks down Dolittle, with a little help from a useful bird, to try to get him to save a squirrel Tommy accidentally shot on a hunting trip. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), an ill-defined member of the royal family, comes calling with an urgent request for Dolittle to attend to the Queen (Jessie Buckley), who has fallen mysteriously ill. The latter request sends Dolittle on a quest to find a cure for the illness, with Tommy convincing Dolittle to let him join him on the adventure.
Gaghan has hinged his film on three main elements: Downey, talking animals, and over-the-top villains. Never a shrinking wallflower, Downey goes all-out in the lead role, indulging in all manner of mannerisms in an attempt to make the character as entertaining as possible. Some are successful, some aren’t, but you can’t fault the effort he put into the role.
The animals are almost all voiced by big-name actors, and if I put a gun to your head, it’s unlikely you’d be able to correctly pair even half of the actors with his or her corresponding animal. Only in this type of film will Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Tom Holland, John Cena, Selena Gomez, Kumail Nanjiani, Craig Robinson, and Marion Cotillard all show up in supporting roles. The lines they are given are uniformly dreadful, but at least they don’t have to show their faces.
Not content with just one, Gaghan has Dolittle face off against three antagonists, none of whom could be considered subtle. Most offensive in this respect is Michael Sheen as Dr. Blair Müdfly, whose facial hair, expressions, and speaking voice are as melodramatic as they get. Antonio Banderas, who was just nominated for an Oscar, is slightly more subdued, but his incomprehensible face paint makes him stand out in a bad way. And Jim Broadbent, taking a cue from his over-the-top role in Moulin Rouge, all but screams his character’s bad intentions well before they are actually revealed.
You’ll notice that I’ve barely mentioned the story, and that’s because the film barely pays attention to it, too. The beats of the plot are merely conduits for Gaghan to give Downey, the actors playing the animals, and the trio of villains more room to play. Gaghan’s story provides a couple of opportunities for more depth, but he chooses to go the easy route at all times.
When it comes to children’s movies, most parents welcome anything that will keep their kids’ attention for 90 minutes. Thanks to its broadness, Dolittle certainly does that, but it’s unlikely to be remembered a month or two from now.