Despite some strange tonal shifts, this warm family film has sweetness & heart.
Stephen Gaghan, the screenwriter of gritty socio-political thrillers like Syriana and Traffic, returns with the next logical step in his career: Dolittle, a sweet-natured children’s film about a man who can talk to animals.
It reminds me of George Miller, who went from creating the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series to pulling a filmmaking 180 degrees when he co-wrote another talking animal movie, Babe. Dolittle doesn’t get anywhere near that 1995 classic, but it’s still a surprisingly enjoyable and brisk adventure film. Robert Downey Jr. starts his post-MCU life as the titular Doctor Dolittle, an eccentric doctor who can communicate with the animal kingdom, but does not do well with fellow humans.
Set in Victorian England, like in the original Hugh Lofting book series, Dolittle starts the film as a reclusive, Howard Hughes-like figure. He shuts himself in his large creature-filled mansion, playing chess with mice as the pieces. He refuses to speak to humans or help any outside animals, spending the last several years mourning the loss of his explorer wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak).
Things change when young, gentle Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) shows up with an injured squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson). Rehabilitating the little guy gets Dolittle out of his funk, so when another young person, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), stops by to ask for his help to save the dying Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), he is ready to get back out there with his animal friends for more adventures.
What makes the film notable (and bizarre) is that, for a talking animal movie, there is a shocking amount of psychological trauma. Not just for Dolittle, who spends the film trying to process the tragic death of his wife, but most of the animals have their own mental wounds they are trying to heal.
What makes the film notable, and bizarre, is that, for a talking animal movie, there is a shocking amount of psychological trauma.
There’s a tiger (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) with mommy issues. There are an ostrich and polar bear (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani and John Cena) with daddy issues, and a gorilla (voiced by Rami Malek) who suffers from low self-esteem. These character traits are not really addressed besides some quick one-liners and don’t build into anything deeper besides a general “We all go through things sometimes!” message. But the fact that Gaghan takes any time to address mental health in this big-budget children’s film is refreshing, even if it’s awkwardly executed.
It’s also nice to see some genuine comedy pop up in what could have been a dry, humorless endeavour. Yes, there is the contractually obligated fart joke to make kids giggle, but there are also some legitimately funny moments between the creatures, specifically movie highlight Jason Mantzoukas voicing a clueless, lovelorn dragonfly who kills it with most of his lines.
Unfortunately, most of the character depth and sense of humor sticks with the animals and is severely lacking in the human characters. The only human that feels close to fully realized is the villain, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, having the time of his life), a former classmate of Dr. Dolittle. He is over-the-top evil but still relatable as a jealous Salieri, forever in the shadow of Dolittle’s Mozart.
Dolittle also suffers from Fantastic Beasts Syndrome (a name that definitely existed before I just made it up), when the weakest part of your franchise is the main character whose job it is to hold the entire operation together. Downey has plenty of room to work here, but he decides to speak with a thick Scottish accent and puts on a gruff, idiosyncratic demeanor that goes against everything that makes Downey a movie star.
It’s definitely a choice, but a confounding one that holds back his performance and the movie. We all know this is 1800s England, but it’s also a whimsical adventure featuring a dog that wears glasses, so audiences would probably get over it if Downey just uses his own voice and natural charisma. The way he leans into the “eccentric oddball” type, along with Danny Elfman’s typically quirky score, makes me think this easily could have been a Tim Burton film from 2007.
There is still enough charm found in the margins here to be worth a viewing, and just enough psychological despair to keep things interesting for grown-ups. It’s just a pity most of the emotional depth has to come from a talking gorilla named Chee-Chee.
Dolittle is open for business in theaters starting January 17th.