Dolittle (2019)

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan 

Written by: Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand

Dolittle_(2020_film_poster)I keep finding myself going to films that the critics don’t want me to see. First I saw the beloved Cats  and this time I went for Dolittle, with its even lower, 15% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike with Cats, I did not go into Dolittle wanting/kind-of-believing the critics would be drastically wrong: I just didn’t want to give up on the idea that Iron Man talking to animals would be a good time. 

While Dr. Dolittle has his origins in a now century-old book series, my knowledge of the character comes solely from Eddie Murphy movies that I watched too long ago to remember. For those in a similar position, this new iteration of Dolittle offers a reasonably different viewing experience. Unlike Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr.’s Dolittle is not a contemporary, American doctor, but an eccentric, Victorian Welshman (and whether you like the performance or not, its clear at least that Downey Jr made a point of not being a Tony Stark-clone). While this may not be an exciting decision for those familiar with the Dolittle novels or Rex Harrison’s 1967 portrayal, the Victorianness of Dolittle undoubtedly provides for a different sensory experience than that of Murphy’s comedy. Dolittle’s story takes him from his charming, yet under-maintained household, to Buckingham palace and then to the high seas. While the story is not a satire in the literal sense of the word (unless I’m missing something), it does brim with parodic energy. 

It is easy to see why critics don’t care for Dolittle. For one, the story is structured around the forced-heart-warmingness of a boy (Harry Collett) discovering Dolittle, and, at ridiculous speed learning, the man’s skill of talking to animals, and inspiring him to come out of retirement. In addition to this thematic genericness, the film also banks on the idea of having comedic characters (Dolittle’s animal gang), that are not well developed, but instead have one-gag personalities that occasionally lend themselves to crudeness. While the celebrity (Emma Thompson, John Cena, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Jason Mantzoukas,  Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard) voiced animals are a clear example of Hollywood trying to cut corners to get to humor, there’s nonetheless a visual beauty to the animals’ photorealistic animation, within the context of Dolittle’s historic, seaside world. Just as real-life puppies don’t need comedic talent to be endlessly entertaining, you can enjoy the fun of seeing an ostrich and polar bear manning a ship, even if their personalities don’t quite resonate with you. Furthermore, I for one found the way in which the quasi-evil tiger was presented was reasonably unique.

There’s no denying Dolittle’s creative  imits, but its particularly bad reputation is not justified. That 15% score is a product of a) how critics seem to have a weird obsession with exaggerating their dislike for “stinkers” and b) Rotten Tomatoes’ binary Fresh/Rotten system leading movies of roughly the same quality to have wildly different scores (I could easily see a film, very much like Doolittle, coming out in a few months and getting something in the 60s). Doolittle’s silliness-on-the-seas structure gives it the air, if not the quality, of films like Muppet Treasure Island. This affect is further embellished by the emergence of a celebrity-portrayed anti-hero at the film’s midpoint, and an eccentric, yet fitting twist in the third act (that some spoiler-prone critics don’t seem to understand is meant to be a surprise). One can debate how much imagination went into Dolittle, but for those wishing to have their own imaginations stimulated: those wishing to travel back in time, with colorful animal sidekicks it is undoubtedly a charming romp.