Review by Sean Boelman
Having faced a supposedly troubled production and numerous delays, Dolittle is finally hitting theaters as the first starring vehicle for actor Robert Downey Jr. Yet despite the odds, this manages to be a charming, albeit slightly uneven, family adventure that is sure to entertain kids of all ages.
Inspired by the children’s book series, the film tells the story of a physician who can speak to animals as he sets out on a journey to find a fabled cure to save the Queen of England. For the most part, the movie follows a relatively archetypal arc, but thanks to the energy of the narrative and the dynamic of the cast, the film manages to work nevertheless.
Admittedly, the thing that is missing from this movie is excitement. As opposed to the last attempt to bring the character to the big screen, this is not a straight comedy, but rather, an action film with comedic elements. The movie takes the form of a series of encounters that Dolittle and his animal sidekicks have on their way to their objective, which is really just a glorified macguffin.
It is the humor of the film that keeps it alive, and there are some very funny moments sprinkled throughout the runtime. Although some of the jokes fall flat, most of which aim for scatological humor or other lowbrow forms of comedy, there is some legitimately clever dialogue. The best moments in the movie exploit the natural charisma of Downey Jr. or the comedic timing of the voice actors.
Downey Jr. is able to command the screen in his role, although one can’t help but feel like he plays it a bit too similarly to his portrayal of a certain master sleuth. Even the accent (which is a bit distracting at first) feels like a shadow of what he has done before. The voice cast is filled with some enormously talented folks, although there are so many big names that not all of them are used to their full potential. Some, such as Kumail Nanjiani, Craig Robinson, and Octavia Spencer, are often hilarious, but others, like John Cena, Rami Malek, and Tom Holland, aren’t given enough to do.
That said, another noticeable issue with the film is its lack of character development. Although the eponymous hero does have an arc, that arc is extremely conventional and superficial. Perhaps the most questionable thing about the script, though, is its inclusion of a second protagonist, a young boy who wishes to become Dolittle’s apprentice. This overused trope brings down the movie, especially since the character is so underdeveloped (though child actor Harry Collett does a good enough job).
On a technical level, the film is nowhere near as big of a mess as one would expect given the fact that it went through significant reshoots. The movie is heavily reliant on CGI to bring its anthropomorphic characters to life, and for the most part, the blending of the live action footage with this is relatively seamless, the most impressive thing about the film is Downey Jr.’s ability to act without an on-screen scene partner.
Dolittle may not be the home run that Downey Jr. and crew thought it would be to kick-off his post-Marvel career, but it is a surprisingly entertaining family flick. But if it weren’t for the screen presence of its star, this movie likely would have fallen to pieces.
Dolittle opens in theaters on January 17.