Dolittle tells the story of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey, Jr.), the eccentric doctor who can talk to the animals and who hasn’t had much use for humans ever since the tragic death of his wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak). Dolittle would be happy to just spend his entire life locked away in his estate, talking to Poly the Parrot (voice of Emma Thompson) and Chee-Chee the Gorilla (voice of Rami Malek) and all of the other animals but Dolitle has to eventually leave his home because otherwise, there wouldn’t be a movie.
When Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is mysteriously taken ill, only Dolittle can save her. Dolittle quickly realizes that the Queen has been poisoned and that the only cure for the poison is to be found on a tree that’s located on an island that no one has ever seen before. Soon, Dolittle and the animals are sailing in search of the island. Accompanying them is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a sensitive teen who hates to hunt and who hopes to become Dolittle’s apprentice. Pursuing Dolittle is the evil Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen), who went to college with Dolittle and who is in cahoots with the conspirators who are trying to do away with Queen Victoria.
Got all of that? I hope so because we haven’t even gotten to the dragon with a set of bagpipes crammed up her ass. Yes, you read that correctly.
Last year, Dolittle was one of the few major studio productions to actually get a wide release before COVID-19 closed down all the theaters. It was released in January, which is traditionally the time when studios release the films that they hope everyone will have forgotten about by the time April rolls around. January is traditionally the month when studios release the films that they know aren’t any good. And, indeed, the reviews of Dolittle were overwhelmingly negative. Not only did the critics hate Dolittle but audiences were also rather unenthusiastic and the film bombed at the box office. Indeed, under normal circumstances, the reaction to Dolittle and its subsequent box office failure would be considered one of the year’s biggest disasters. However, 2020 was a year of disasters. Compared to everything else that ended up happening over the past 12 months, Dolittle’s lukewarm reception seems almost quaint now.
Earlier today, I finally watched Dolittle on HBOMax. I was expecting the film to be terrible but it’s actually not quite as bad as I had been led to believe. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Dolittle has a ton of problems. The tone is all over the place as the film tries to mix cartoonish humor with thrilling adventure in a style that owes more to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise than it does to Dr. Dolittle. Despite a few self-consciously manic moments, Robert Downey, Jr. seems remarkably bored in the lead role. Many of the jokes fall flat and the awkward attempts to shoehorn the usual message of “be true to yourself” into the film just felt awkward. That said, the CGI animals were cute enough to hold my interest and that’s really the most important thing when it comes to a film like Dolittle. Cute animals — even computer generated ones — help to make up for a lot of flaws.
Dolittle’s final scene hints at a sequel or even a franchise. Considering the reaction to the first film, I doubt we’ll get a second. I do think Dr. Dolittle could make for an enjoyable PIXAR film but it might be time to give the live action adaptations a rest.