DOLITTLE: The Perfect Cure for Awards Season-itis

Ignore the hate. Downey’s first post-Marvel choice was the right one.

If ever future historians want to look at the perfect case study for how bad press can hound a movie, they’ll surely be examining the case of Dolittle. One of the first high-profile releases of the year (does Bad Boys for Life count as high profile?), Dolittle’s odds have been stacked against it for nearly two years now. Rumblings started in 2018 when many questioned why star Robert Downey Jr. chose remaking a classic piece of literature for his first post-Avengers outing. Then when the movie’s release date was changed twice (in order to avoid competing with Star Wars and Frozen II), naysayers saw it as a sign that the studio had lost faith in it. Finally, when reshoots were held with director Jonathan Liebesman coming in to tweak some of the more CGI-heavy sequences (due to original director Stephen Gaghan having no such experience in that arena), everyone with a movie news outlet screamed disaster. And now as Dolittle finally opens, the doubters may delight in its low tracking numbers where box office is concerned, but will surely have to concede that despite its bumpy road to the screen, Dolittle is the kind of whimsical, frothy and adventurous piece of escapist fare some of us hoped it would be.

Based on the classic character created by author Hugh Lofting, Dolittle tells the story of an eccentric veterinarian (Downey) whose specialty lies in being able to communicate with animals. However the death of his wife years earlier has caused him to become a recluse with only his menagerie of animals to keep him company. When word comes that the young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has taken ill and is on the brink of death, Dolittle finds himself traveling by sea to a remote island in order to capture the magical fruit which will save her life. Accompanying him on the journey are the majority of his animal friends as well as Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collet), a young boy who shares the same gift as Dolittle. Along the way, they will battle a rival physician (Michael Sheen), a pirate King with a grudge (Antonio Banderas) and even a fire breathing dragon in an effort to save the Queen’s life.

Dolittle aims to be the kind movie that’ll be for every member of the family, and it pretty much is. The humor is widespread and pretty timeless, with most of it coming from the colorful, sometimes scatterbrained nature of the animals themselves. With a voice cast that includes Emma Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland and Craig Robinson, among a host of others, each of these seasoned pros gets the chance to exercise their funny bone. The makers of Dolittle (which includes Downey himself) love the energy and spirit the animals bring to the story so much, they’ve given them actual arcs. Rami Malek’s gorilla gets to overcome his fears, while Robinson’s squirrel seems to be in his own movie where he is the star, hilariously unaware of the events unfolding around him. All of this could have resulted in a CGI-heavy mess, but the animals move so seamlessly, making Dolittle feel like less of a technical film and more of a genuine adventure ride. Dolittle does indeed have plenty of adventure to go around and makes the most out of its premise as the good doctor and his feathered crew battle obstacle after obstacle on their way to saving the Queen’s life. Admittedly, the movie is stronger when the animals are silent and Dolittle is seen communicating with them from another character’s point of view. These moments lead to some real imagination on Downey’s part in terms of acting which enhances the already joyful tone of the movie. Maybe the reason such instances are so strong is because, although straightforward, they can’t help but bring out how inherently empathic of a man the main character is. Watching Dolittle exude affection and concern about every animal he comes into contact with, regardless of whether or not they’re trading one-liners with him, is exactly the kind of underlying theme the movie is so good at conveying.

Perhaps the appeal for me (and doubtless others, I’m sure) of Dolittle is the movie’s wholly embraceable throwback quality. This isn’t a film which depends on new technology or a franchise with a built-in fanbase in order to function. It operates in the same way which many classic family fantasy adventures have; through fun and imagination in their purest forms. Aiding in this is the movie’s ability to feel like a genuine piece of children’s literature which has been magically brought to life on the big screen. What could have easily been nothing more than a vanity project for its star instead pays tribute to the original Hugh Lofting text and the pleasures they gave legions of young readers. The movie establishes its intentions to be nostalgic almost immediately with its gorgeously hand-drawn prologue which instantly harkens back to a more innocent pre-Pixar time. From then on, the movie adopts the sensibility of the kind of inoffensive and unimposing piece of family entertainment a la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Around the World in 80 Days, prompting its audience to do nothing more than just sit back and bask in the sheer innocence of it all. The use of real-world settings rather than imagined universes gives the movie a practical feel, grounding it as the filmmakers do stellar work in making every environment feel like it came out of a fairy tale. The majesty of Buckingham palace, the mystery of the treacherous kingdom the entire group finds themselves trapped in, the tragic beauty of Dolittle’s sealed off compound and the wonder of the magical island where the special fruit is waiting to be found are all constructed with the kind of love and care by people who seem to carry with them a fondness for the kind of movies Dolittle is paying tribute to.

After playing Tony Stark so long, all eyes will be on just how well Downey will be able to adjust to a different character. Remarkably however, the actor dials it down more than most familiar with his acting would expect, choosing not to compete for the spotlight with his animal co-stars, but rather play Dolittle as a fearless eccentric whose damaged past remains a part of him. The actor sports a credible Welsh accent and actually manages to ground the movie by the way he plays the fantasy as reality. His fellow humans in the cast all take wildly different approaches. Banderas is campy (and yet somewhat restrained), Sheen is too over-the-top for words (resulting in the movie’s only cringing moments), while Collett makes for a winning sidekick with a warm screen presence and a natural ability to hold his own opposite one of the world’s biggest stars. The actors voicing the animals all do what they were hired to do, but it’s Robinson and Nanjiani who earn the most and biggest laughs as a well-designed squirrel and ostrich, respectively.

As much of a sell job as I’m doing on the movie, Dolittle is far from problem-free. The movie’s pacing seems curiously amped up and the editing so blatantly hints at a longer version where side characters were given their own arcs (or at least a couple of more scenes) that were more on par with the animals. I refuse to believe someone like the Oscar-winning Jim Broadbent (who turns up as a scheming palace official) would sign on for what looks like the equivalent for three days worth of work. Sometimes the makers of movies aimed at families tend to underestimate the attention span of children, resulting in a somewhat abridged version of the tale they set out to wow them with. Regardless, in its current state, the movie is enchanting and charming in every way you’d like it to be, imparting themes of empathy towards the creatures of the outside world. Ideally, the movie would get more kids excited about reading. Realistically however, it succeeds in proving you don’t have to raise children on a strict Marvel diet. If Iron Man himself believes this, then clearly there’s something to it.

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