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Film Review: “Dolittle” Could Do More with Much Less, but Still Offers Good Family Fun

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 16th, 2020

Film poster: “Dolittle”

Dolittle (Stephen Gaghan, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars. 

In 1920, British author Hugh Lofting, fresh out of the horrific trenches of World War I, published a children’s fantasy novel entitled The Story of Doctor Dolittle, in which he recounted the adventures of a human physician who can speak with, and prefers the company of, animals over people. Many further books ensued until Lofting’s death in 1947, and even beyond. The first film adaptation came in the form of a 1927 animated short by the great Lotte Reininger. Then, in a 1967 feature-length movie, Rex Harrison incarnated the character on screen, followed by Eddie Murphy in 1998 (and in 2001, for a sequel). Now we have Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) as the titular character in the simply titled Dolittle. The “Doctor” may be gone, but he’s very much in the house, the actor’s outsize personality filling the frame, as it so often does. When W.C. Fields once said “Never work with children or animals,” he forgot about hams. Still, overacting aside, the new Dolittle is, though absolutely ridiculous in most ways, a lot of fun, and filled with some valuable life lessons.

When young Master Stubbins (Harry Collett), a local peasant lad in the stylized Victorian-era England of the film, accidentally shoots a squirrel on a family hunting expedition on which he has been very reluctantly dragged (he loves all animals), he panics and agrees to follow an out-of-place parrot who guides him to a mysterious nearby mansion. We know who lives there, as we have just watched an animated opening narrated by said parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson, Late Night), who explains the entire backstory of the plot, including how Dolittle was granted the land and house by the queen, herself, and how he lost the love of his life, Lily. Yes, this is one of those movies where a narrator pops up every once in a while to make sure we know exactly what is happening, and why. So here we are, with Stubbins and his injured squirrel, facing a recluse of a main character who has to be forced, by his many animal companions, to assist the boy, so wary is he of human company. Stubbins, himself, though initially frightened, is quickly delighted, and starts trying to learn to speak with the animals, too. It will be his mission for the duration of the film.

Just as Stubbins is stumbling into Dolittle’s orbit, there arrives an equally young girl, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), part of Queen Victoria’s inner circle, sent (strangely, on her own) to fetch Dolittle to save his patroness, who is at death’s door. It may seem strange that someone who is essentially a veterinarian would be so summoned, but there you have it. Off he goes, Stubbins, Lady Rose, and a whole crew of furry and feathered creatures in tow, to save the queen. It turns out the physician in charge of her care, a Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, The Special Relationship), may have something to do with her illness. Equally as important, he hates Dolittle, and the feeling is mutual. Dolittle quickly diagnoses the problem, and soon he and his compadres, including Stubbins, embark on a journey around the world, by ship, to find the needed cure. While on that trip, they will meet, among others, a man who can match every one of Downey’s theatrical exaggerations, and then some: Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory). Forget Lily: theirs is a match made in cinematic heaven (and Sheen does all right in that arena, as well).

Robert Downey Jr and members of the DOLITTLE cast ©Universal Pictures

The entire confection is beyond silly, but embedded in the over-the-top nuttiness of it all are some solid messages about overcoming fear (starting with not being ashamed of having it); being kind to, and helping, others; and listening to one’s inner voice, to, as Hamlet might say, “thine own self be true.” There is nothing wrong with that. The digital effects are well crafted, and the CGI animals are voiced by an array of accomplished actors, including Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far from Home), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) and Octavia Spencer (Luce), among many, many others. And now, a confession: I have neither read any of the books nor seen any of the previous films. I don’t think it matters, although depending on how one feels about the earlier works, the new Dolittle could possibly suffer by comparison (or not). In any case, it may be far from any kind of masterpiece, but provides enough of a good time, offering appropriate family-targeted mayhem, that it at least justifies its existence. A winning endorsement, I know. Enjoy!

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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