Directed by: Stephen Gaghan | 101 minutes | adventure, comedy | Actors: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Kasia Smutniak, Carmel Laniado, Ralph Ineson, Joanna Page | Original voice cast: Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Frances de la Tour, Jason Mantzoukas
A doctor who can communicate with animals, in their own language. Exactly one hundred years ago, the first book about Doctor Dolittle was published. Englishman Hugh Lofting created the character several years before when he fought as an engineer in the trenches for the British Army during World War I. Not wanting to write to his children about the horrors of war, he wrote them fictional letters about a special doctor who could talk to animals. He would later say that the real news was either too boring or too gruesome to write about. The letters formed the basis for his successful series of children’s books about Doctor Dolittle. The film adaptations around the beloved character are not exactly successful; The 1967 musical version with the widely respected Rex Harrison in the title role pulled out all the stops, but the big budgets couldn’t hide its lack of charm and magic. “The film has one positive side: if you have unruly children, they may be lulled to sleep,” said film critic Leonard Maltin’s scathing critique. The critics were also not kind about ‘Dr. Dolittle’ (1998), starring Eddie Murphy, but that film scored so well at the box office that a sequel was released three years later. We’re not even talking about the three straight-to-DVD spin-offs that resulted.
Does Doctor Dolittle still appeal to the imagination in 2020? Stephen Gaghan and Robert Downey Jr. think so. We know Gaghan as a screenwriter (he won an Oscar for the excellent drug drama ‘Traffic’ (2000) and also wrote and directed ‘Syriana’ (2005) for example). He wrote and directed ‘Dolittle’ (2020) and Downey Jr. was looking for a break in addition to all the superhero violence that he brings to the cinemas and can not only be seen here in the lead role, but as executive producer also (partly) provided the financing for the project. The screenplay was adapted and rewritten several times during the production process – among others Seth Rogen was temporarily brought on board to increase the joke density – which usually doesn’t make the final product much better. Not surprisingly, the end result is quite messy. ‘Dolittle’ is a ‘lots of screaming, little wool’ category film, which is all the more painful given the immense talent involved.
The film’s climax comes right in the opening minutes, in an animated sequence that explains the history of Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.). He is a vet in Victorian Britain who understands the art of communicating with animals. After his wife Lily is killed at sea, the grief-torn Dolittle withdraws from public life. He has no contact with humans, only with the animals that live with him after he rescues them. But when none other than the Queen of England (the wonderful Jessie Buckley, who barely gets anything to do here) calls out to him for help because she has a mysterious illness and hopes he can cure her, he takes the challenge anyway. on, albeit reluctantly. With him go his young apprentice (Harry Collett) and a herd of his closest animal friends. They go in search of a mythical tree, whose fruits have healing powers. But also the nefarious Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) has his sights set on the magical fruits, and he does everything he can to thwart Dolittle. And pirate king Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) also has a bone to pick with him…
‘Dolittle’ is packed with crazy scenes. Doctor Downey doesn’t just talk to octopuses and ducks, but tries to resuscitate a squirrel, sails raging oceans, breaks into Buckingham Palace and performs some sort of stomach reduction on a dragon that likes to devour knights. All these scenes are accompanied by a lot of shit and pee jokes (is that perhaps Rogen’s influence?) and follow each other at such a killer pace that logic and continuity regularly fail. The result is a messy chaos of superficial scenes with talking animals and a dazed Downey who has adopted a curious accent (which must apparently pass for Welsh) and stares apathetically at his projected animal counterparts. Those animals are not voiced by the least, by the way: Oscar winners Emma Thompson, Marion Cotillard, Octavia Spencer and Rami Malek, Oscar nominees Ralph Fiennes and Kumail Nanjiani and respected stars such as John Cena, Selena Gomez, Tom Holland, Frances de la Tour. , Will Arnett and Craig Robinson. In ‘human’ supporting roles we see Oscar winner Jim Broadbent and Ralph Ineson in addition to Sheen, Buckley and Banderas. Although one role is bigger and more important than the other, the animals in particular constantly jump at each other’s feet to score with the silliest jokes. As if they ran amok and then escaped from the local zoo.
‘Dolittle’ was unlucky to be released in the corona year, in which the cinemas were closed for a longer period. But even if we ignore that, it’s not surprising that the film is called a flop: all those big names involved can’t save this hysterical sinking ship. It seems that the many different screenwriters who co-wrote, and the many different producers who wanted to get their hands dirty, have seriously clouded Gaghan’s vision, resulting in a messy and exhausting cacophony.