Arts movie review

‘Dolittle’ does little to impress but entertains nonetheless

It is a lack of expectations that makes the film surprisingly enjoyable

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Robert Downey Jr. and Emma Thompson star in 'Dolittle.'
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek
Rated PG, Playing Jan. 17

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle is the latest entry in Hollywood’s disappointingly robust collection of (uninspired) remakes nobody asked for, and as a result, expectations going into the film were not particularly high (especially given the January release date — a month notorious for mediocre movies). Perhaps it was this lack of expectations that made the movie surprisingly enjoyable. 

Gaghan takes the general premise of the doctor, Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), who can talk to animals and transplants it into a fantastical Victorian England. Ever since his wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak), passed away several years ago in a shipwreck, Dolittle has isolated himself in his menagerie with only his animals for companionship. However, upon receiving the news that the Queen of England (Jessie Buckley) has fallen gravely ill, the doctor resolves to end his self-exile and embark on a quest to find a cure. Accompanying him on his journey are his loyal animals, including Poly (Emma Thompson), the parrot of reason; Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), the cowardly gorilla; and Yoshi (John Cena), the loyal polar bear. Tagging along is Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young boy who is fascinated by Dolittle’s ability to communicate with animals and quickly worms his way into an apprenticeship. 

The combination of predictable and cheesy dialogue lends itself to a certain air of underlying exasperation throughout the film. However, in a way, the cheesiness worked in the movie’s favor. Perhaps it was the delivery of the dialogue or the charisma of the characters (or a combination of both) that balanced out those typical pitfalls. Either way, the clichéd tone proved to be less of a hindrance than anticipated, and I actually found myself genuinely laughing out loud at several moments throughout the movie. It seems that everyone involved was acutely aware of the type of film they were making and chose to embrace the inevitable tropes that come with a movie like Dolittle.

Critically speaking, however, this does not rescue the film from its glaring weaknesses and actually greatly contributes to the poor execution. Like many similar films, Dolittle suffers from gaping plot holes, lack of character development, predictability, and corny dialogue. It somehow manages to simultaneously try too hard and too little to be meaningful — sprinkling in many scenes where an attempt is made at generating some sort of further depth to the story, but the dialogue is much too forced and the pacing much too fast to formulate anything of consequential importance. The signs of lazy writing emerge at the very beginning when the film’s exposition is a summarized storytime of all the events that led to current day, complete with a voiceover and animation. Luckily, that does help to reduce runtime and saves the audience from sitting through an extra half hour of generic backstory. Visually, the CGI for the animals was not as terrible as I had initially thought it would be. There were certainly aspects that looked rather out of place when juxtaposed next to everything not green-screened and computer generated, but it did not distract too much from the general flow.

The only remarkable aspect of the film is found in its cast’s credentials. From Robert Downey Jr. to Emma Thompson to Ralph Fiennes, the sheer amount of starpower and raw talent is enough to catapult the film from the usual indistinctiveness of January films to a higher profile slot, but there is only so much starpower can do in an age where the draw of the moviestar is dwindling. The performances were entertaining but overall are largely uninspired, which is rather disappointing given the breadth of talent.

Dolittle does its job as a whimsical movie for kids. There’s fantasy, adventure, talking animals, everything that can keep a child enraptured, and as long as you don’t try to go beyond its surface, it can be enjoyable for all audiences. To quote my friend: “If you don’t want to spend any IQ points on a movie...” The best way to enjoy Dolittle is to take it for what it is at face value and refrain from putting too much thought into it.