Welcome to 2020 where intellectual property remains king, and reboots (and reboots of reboots) continue to rule the box office.
The danger of this is something akin to playing the game of “telephone”, I think. The more times a story is told, the less resemblance it bears to the original telling.
So as we approach “Dolittle”, the fourth theatrical adventure featuring Hugh Lofting’s good doctor, it behooves us to remember the character’s origins and why Lofting wrote these stories in the first place.
“It was during the Great War (World War I) and my children at home wanted letters from me — and they wanted them with illustrations rather than without,” Lofting recalled in “The Book of Junior Authors.”. “There seemed very little interest to write to youngsters from the Front: the news was either too horrible or too dull.”
And so, in an effort to shield his children from the horrors of war, Lofting wrote instead of Dr. Dolittle and a boy named Stubbins, a parrot named Polynesia and a duck named Dab-Dab. It wasn’t until after he returned from the war that he realized he might have a book (or a series of them) on his hands. The Dolittle stories, from the very beginning, have never been great art, but have served as escapist stories that can, for a moment at least, shield children from the horrors of the real world.
On that metric, Universal Pictures’ new critically derided “Dolittle” works remarkably well, I think. The “Dolittle” stories have never been written for critics – they are written for children. And due to the frequent stream of giggles I heard throughout the film – and my own big dopey grin that I had through most of the proceedings- I think this one will connect with both children and children-at-heart, critics be damned.
A lovely hand-drawn animated prologue sets the scene: Dr. John Dolittle (played in this incarnation by Robert Downey Jr.) can still talk (and grunt and squeak and squawk!) with the animals. However, he has ruled out interactions with humans after the death of his wife in a shipwreck years earlier.
Society, naturally, comes knocking on his door – first in the form of Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young boy trying to find aid for an injured squirrel, and later in the form of Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a handmaiden for Queen Victoria, who informs the doctor that the Queen (Jessie Buckley of “Judy”) has fallen gravely ill and requested his services.
Why the queen needs medical assistance from a veterinarian remains unclear, but this is a movie with pirates and dragons and a polar bear who calls people “Bro.” Just go with it.
Dolittle deciphers that the queen has been poisoned and can only be healed by fruit from the Eden Tree, a magical tree that his wife died trying to find. So off he goes with an animal menagerie to find the cure.
That menagerie remains one of the most appealing parts of the “Dolittle” story, I think, and many of the characters in this telling hail straight from Lofting: Chee-Chee the frightened gorilla (Academy Award-winner Rami Malek, quite good), Dab-Dab the duck (Academy-Award winner Octavia Spencer, a hoot), Polynesia the parrot (Academy-Award winner Emma Thompson) and Jip the dog (Tom Holland, who to my knowledge has not won an Academy Award).
There are plenty of new additions as well – from an ostrich played by Kumail Nanjiani to a polar bear voiced by John Cena. There is also a rabbit who I am 100% sure is voiced by Will Arnett, but I can find no confirmation of this online.
Just a few weeks into the new year, “Dolittle” has received some of 2020’s worst reviews criticizing everything from Downey’s performance to the script’s tonal issues. Some of these criticisms hold water, while others don’t.
Sheila O’Malley, with rogerebert.com, for example, says that “certain scenes are confusingly shot and haphazardly put together”, which is an impression I never had while watching this movie. I was always able to tell what was going on, and Stephen Gaghan’s direction is always competent. What’s more, Gaghan occasionally conjures moments that are downright exceptional – from that lovely animated prologue to the introduction of Dolittle’s awe-inspiring nature preserve.
Speaking of Dolittle, many critics have taken issue with Downey’s performance, which, again, is a problem I did not have. Downey’s decision to speak in hushed tones and a Welsh accent is certainly a unique and unexpected choice, but it is not one that distracts from the movie as critics have claimed. He’s not going to win an Oscar for this, but he is just fine.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some issues with this “Dolittle.” For a $175 million dollar movie, the special effects on the animals seem curiously unfinished. For example, if you plopped Chee-Chee into the most recent “Planet of the Apes” movie, he would feel hopelessly out of place. That movie was made for over $25 million less than “Dolittle.” Where did the money go exactly?
The biggest problem, though, is the tonal whiplash throughout. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Universal delayed the film by nine months – after Gaghan had already completed it – so that they could “craft a sillier movie more likely to appear to young moviegoers”. Chris McKay (of the pretty great “Lego Batman Movie”) and Jonathan Liebesman (of the pretty awful “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies) were brought on as replacement directors to help what Universal clearly thought was a sinking ship.
The result is that I often felt like I was watching two films simultaneously. The first is a whimsical Victorian fantasy with occasional sight gags (Chee-Chee and the doc play a game of chess where live mice are the game pieces) and gentle character-based humor (Dab-Dab, the doc’s medical assistant, keeps confusing vegetables for medical equipment). This is Gaghan’s movie. It is true to the spirit of Lofting’s original stories and is generally pretty delightful.
The second film is exactly the sort of film you would expect McKay, Liebesman and the writers of “How I Met Your Mother” to make. There are jokes about whales flipping people off (with their flippers of course) and an octopus who tells us that “snitches get stitches”. Characters randomly start talking like they’re in the 21st century even though they are very clearly in the Victorian era. A dragon is brought in for what is, essentially, a five-minute long fart joke. Comedians like Nanjiani, Craig Robinson and Jason Mantzoukas seem almost manic in their pursuit of jokes.
This second film rarely works, if at all.
The good will that Gaghan earns in his sections of the movie got me through the McKay/Liebesman portions. Still, I would love to see Gaghan’s director’s cut some day. I imagine I would like that movie more. I imagine Lofting would too.
Still, we can’t judge a movie for what it could have been, but what it is. And what we have is a great cast, some compelling set pieces and a lovely message about the importance of helping others.
Even in this imperfect incarnation, the world of “Dolittle” (rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language) remains a pretty charming place to escape – even if you’re just trying to get away from the January weather for a while.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.