After the colossal misfire that was Cats, audiences may not be ready for another round of CGI-rendered animals. But, despite none of us really asking for it, Dolittle is here, and we can at least be thankful that it’s not the cinematic car-crash it very easily could have been – at least in comparison to the aforementioned Jellicle mess.
That’s not to say Dolittle isn’t a bit of a mess itself, but it is a children’s film, so viewing it as so means Stephen Gaghan‘s fantastical adventure is suitably fine entertainment for its target audience. I imagine many a child may appear initially restless with the film’s opening moments – where Robert Downey, Jr.‘s titular Doctor-turned-hermit wrestles with his hoard of animalistic cohorts in regards to opening his services to the world again – but once a standard voyage sets in, and the various A-list voiced animals interact with each other (hey it sounds like Rami Malek is voicing that anxious gorilla, and could that be Selena Gomez and Marion Cottilard as an unlikely giraffe/fox combo), Dolittle‘s family-friendly mentality kicks in, and the journey is perfectly harmless.
Some of that aforementioned mess could boil down to the fact that director Gaghan’s previous efforts are hardly kiddie fare – Syriana and Traffic, anyone? – and rumblings of reshoots with another director being brought on to oversee additional humour spliced in certainly confirms suspicions when looking at the film as a whole; rather ironically too, the final product, as sweet as it is, is hardly what you’d call humorous. Then there’s Robert Downey, Jr.. It’s, of course, a treat to see him in something outside the realms of the MCU (R.I.P. Iron Man), and we can be thankful that the actor was so passionate about getting this film made as the character’s eccentricities feels like something that a studio would have catered to Johnny Depp (when, you know, he was still someone we barracked for), but, rather bizarrely, he’s Dolittle‘s most polarising ingredient.
It’s all too easy to wax lyrical on just how distracting Downey, Jr.’s accent is (Scottish? Welsh? British? American? Pick a lane, Stark!), not to mention the criminal underuse of Jessie Buckley as a young Queen of England – her character’s grave illness used as the catalyst for Dolittle to emerge from his introverted shell to travel the seas in search of a mystical cure – but, stepping back to look at the film as a children’s movie, it’s all criticism for nought. As a vibrantly coloured, loud, rather ridiculous, age-appropriate adventure film, it’s very much in the lane it needs to be; and, sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with a film that aims for simplicity.
As for said Queen-saving voyage, Dolittle very much finds its footing when the good Doctor sets sail for a faraway island, a destination he believes holds the cure to save the poor royal’s life; it sounds like the perilous situation she’s in is a much bigger plot point than it is, but it’s a mere excuse to get the story moving, as well as to offer villainous prototype Michael Sheen the kind of material he can chew with camp-fuelled intensity. With his caring, almost motherly macaw Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson) guiding his conscience, the sequences surrounding Dolittle’s excursions of the ocean prove to be the film’s most organic, only furthering the feeling of disappointment conjured in its opening moments, which teeter on dangerously distancing the young audience the film so desperately wants to entertain.
Whilst the adults coming along to sessions with their enthused kids in tow are unlikely to be tickled by any of Dolittle‘s comedic attempts, they can at least rest assured that the humour is appropriate across the board. No double entendres to speak of, no sly inclusions to illicit a hearty giggle, no pop-culture references…it’s safe PG fare for 102 minutes; not even adult-aimed comedians like Craig Robinson (as an attitude-heavy squirrel), Kumail Nanjiani (as a cynical ostrich), or Jason Mantzoukas (as a wisecracking dragonfly) can sneak in a grown-up gag.
Given its prime school holiday release slot (at least in Australia) Dolittle should easily entice the family markets, whilst perhaps tricking a few young Marvel fans in the meantime who aren’t aware that RDJ does anything besides Iron Man. For those without children, or if you’re just too damn cynical about the current climate of what’s on offer in the local theatres (which is a fair road to take), Dolittle is one Doctor you can do without visiting.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Dolittle is screening in Australian theatres now