Any film that actively confuses you must be at least considered to be special. Dolittle is not that film. Although it does inspire confusion it is never for a positive reason such as a bold choice, a great but frustrating performance or even a lively song choice. Dolittle is upsettingly derivative in how it doesn’t really know what it is, what it has to say or how to make us care. The oftentimes dark tone of this family comedy feels at odds with Robert Downey Jr’s performance and the almost Disney-lite brand the film is striving for.
Telling the story of famed animal carer Dr Dolittle (Downey Jr) and how he is brought back to the land of man to save the life of the queen (Jessie Buckley) when she falls mysteriously. His quest takes him in search of a mythical tree with the help of a bevvy of animals who protect him from his worst impulses. Also tagging along is stowaway and wannabe apprentice Tommy (Harry Collett) intent on proving himself.
Usually, when assigning a subtitle to my reviews I either go for something slightly comic or a callback to the movie in general but when it came time to write this I couldn’t find something to call it, the film defies classification. Not only does it rest in a constant state of ‘why did this get made’ and ‘how did that make it in’ but it is shocking to see such unpleasantness in a children’s film. From animal colonics to flagrant misogyny, Dolittle feels like a callback to 80s filmmaking, making the Eddie Murphy series seem more socially aware.
Despite a story that feels light, almost empty when you spend time thinking about the plot, everything is weighed down with heavy subtext, the kind that seems forced into a film to make it ‘work’ for adults. While Dolittle suffers from grief due to the loss of his wife, his connection to her seems unimportant, their stories even more so. His loss seems superficial and at times it feels like the film intentionally avoids anything serious, while still managing to fit in sequences where people are used as human shields.
In fact, Stephan Gaghan, who wrote and directed here, wants to turn things on their head and make this Dolittle world-weary yet learned. However, thanks to the cutesy score, a slapdash performance by Downey Jr and a lack of direction, this Doctor comes off as a dolt, collapsing into situations instead of using his supposed ‘intellect’. Not only does following him seem irresponsible but the entire journey feels like a descent into lunacy instead of an acknowledgement of the remarkable.
While it does try and find a healthy balance between the outlandish and the real when it comes to the treatment of his animal crew, no attention has been paid to the human element. Tommy is a laughable audience surrogate, someone who only asks questions we never needed the answers to. While at times it feels like Dolittle is intentionally lost, even that veil falls to reveal a man who doesn’t even seem psychologically sound. If you had to boil it down to one word it would be insane, and that’s even before you start telling people he can talk to animals.