Dolittle isn’t a film. It’s a mixture of a dare gone wrong and a misguided dream. Granted, I am only guessing I can’t know for sure. I can only tell you what I thought and felt while watching Stephen Gaghan’s attempt at storytelling; pity.
It should be noted that while it may be easy and fun- to mock and belittle Gaghan’s boondoggle, it is clear that clear thinking rational grown-ups are not the target audience. Dolittle is aimed at kids, very young kids, very very young kids; toddlers or younger to be exact. For anyone else, it is like watching a beloved actor mumble, bumble, and grumble his way through one embarrassing scene after another.
I’ll give Dolittle credit for attempting to be smart. Unlike the Eddie Murphy vehicles of the late nineties and early 2000s, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Dolittle actually speaks in growls, clicks, chirps, and roars with the animals. Thankfully it is also unlike the 1967 Reichard Fleischer movie in it is not a musical. Gaghan has smashed the two together so we get some scenes in which he speaks the animal’s language and others where we hear the animals voiced by whatever celebrity Downey and Gaghan happen to know.
At times Gaghan allows mass chaos as dozens of animals caw, roar, and screech, causing Downey to almost have a seizure as he tries to respond to each animal. Realistically, yes, the animals would try to talk over each other and not care about the mental gymnastics they’re putting the poor Doctor through to try and keep up. Worse is when Gaghan switches to Dolittle’s point of view so we hear the celebrity voices all gibbering and jabbering at once as they speak in these high pitched overdramatic voices adults commonly speak in because they think children are stupid.
The script is one of those horses by committee numbers in which some five writers are credited. A not all that surprising fact considering Dolittle feels like someone took five scripts, tore them up, and glued some of the pages together in random order while throwing other pages out the window. Dolittle has a young boy apprentice Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young girl who is a Princess, Lady Rose (Carmela Laniado), a sniveling arch-nemesis Doctor Mudfly (Michael Sheen), a gorilla suffering from PSTD, a dead pirate/explorer wife who dies during the opening credits, a low key assassination attempt and coup of the British Crown, and Antonio Banderas as a pirate king.
Banderas as the Pirate King is the one decent and beautiful idea in all of Dolittle. Not Downey’s pale visage of a Scottish hung over Tony Stark. As per usual, it is left to poor Antonio to be the best thing about the movie he’s in. Effortlessly he embodies rage, grief, and sadness while still playing a flamboyant pirate king who sleeps with a horde of tigers and wears enough eyeshadow to start his own 80’s, tribute band.
The part of the movie concerning Dolittle’s wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak), is maddening if only because it gives us the hope of a rousing adventure movie for kids with a happy couple, an eccentric but brilliant husband who talks to animals and a literal pirate princess who commands the ship and his heart by his side. But no, she dies before the title even appears on-screen and we’re left with Tommy and Lady Rose. A vegan in a family of hunters and a Princess who has little to do except to fetch Dolittle and bring him to the castle to help save the queen. She does not go with them on their adventure nor does she have any bearing on any of the myriad of plots running throughout the movie. Tommy somehow begins to learn the language of the animals which is meant to show us how smart he is but fails to show us why we should care or find him interesting.
Gaghan has splashed the screen with a visage of soulless computer-generated effects with deadened eyes that do not match the overly peppy famous actor in the recording booth. At times I wondered if maybe the actor in the booth was watching a different movie. How else to explain these bizarre excited over the top voice performances matching so poorly with these lifeless realistic animal CGI effects.
Considering how bad the effects are it feels important to point out how utterly gorgeous and transporting the hand-drawn storybook pictures in the opening and closing credits are. Had Dolittle been done in the style of the credits, much could have been forgiven and even more readily accepted. The pictures have a wonderful brushlike quality to them and combined with Danny Elfman’s score bring out the whimsy, fun, and simple child-like sense of adventure that a movie about a man who can talk to animals is supposed to have.
I know Dolittle is ultimately harmless and its aim is for really little kids and we should just be happy people are making a genuine effort. A part of me is having to remind myself of Jean Cocteau’s plea to the audience at the beginning of La Belle et la Bete for “a little of this childlike simplicity”. Though few levels of hell sink to the level of being an adult watching a kids movie unconcerned with any child except the ones who have just entered the world it is important to remember we don’t matter.
Dolittle is a movie for kids and is meant to be enjoyed as such. Adults with our capacity for reasoning, frame composition, and our tendency to demand some semblance of imagination and whimsy are meant to sit this one out. Though I will not go through the indignity of matching the celebrity voices with the animals they play, I simply will not.
Sometimes we forget how much joy movies our parents hated brought us as children. I myself remember watching Leonard: Part 6 so much my mother forbade me from ever renting it again. Who knows, maybe your youngest will be awed by what they see, after all the story opens up with the most magical of lines, “Once Upon a Time…”.
I just know I’d rather chew my left arm off than sit through Dolittle again. Yes, it’s not for me, I know. It doesn’t mean I have to like it.