Do We Even Want to Talk to the Animals? Dolittle Is a Mess Unworthy of Its Cast

Does everyone else remember the summer of 2008? When the first Iron Man came out, and people were ecstatic about how great Robert Downy Jr., was as Tony Stark, and then like two months later he showed ridiculous range in Tropic Thunder (while also doing a cool riff on his dad’s classic indie film, Putney Swope) and then like a year later Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes adaptation came out, and RDJ was great in that, too?

It looked like the beginning of an incredible career resurgence for RDJ—and then the MCU happened, and it all worked even better than we’d hoped! But after a decade of Iron Man, we were excited to see what big project RDJ would tackle for his first big post-Stark role. Would he go prestige drama? Indie? Over-the-top comedy a la Tropic Thunder?

Or… would he cobble together a collection of his Holmes’ tics—with an accent that veers wildly between “the one he used in Restoration,” “almost-Jack-Sparrow,” and “not-quite-Mrs.-Doubtfire”—and valiantly attempt to portray a depressed, grief-stricken widower in a scene where a polar bear and an ostrich argue in voices provided by Kumail Nanjiani and John Cena?

Join me, on a perilous journey: an attempt at reviewing Dolittle.

All right, let’s just start with the obvious. I am NOT this film’s target audience, because I am not a six-year-old. (Even when I was a six-year-old, I wasn’t exactly a six-year-old—I liked reading books about chronically-ill Victorian children, and I loved horror. This film would not have spoken to me.) So I’ll start by saying that my screening seemed to be about 1/4 movie critics and 3/4 families with children. The kids seemed engaged, I heard some gasps, lots of smol hands clapped when the credits rolled. If you are guardian to a child, they might like this movie! The CGI animal rendering totally worked for me, and struck the right balance between cute and realistic. (Honestly I think the film should have just been animated, but that’s a whole other thing.)  The sheer variety of animals was good, with most of the action given to a gorilla, a polar bear, an ostrich, a parrot, and a goose, with some great smaller roles for creatures as varied as squids, sugar gliders, and walking sticks. So if you have a kid that likes bugs, they’ll find a bug to love, if they love birds, there are a couple of birds for them to squee at, and there are so many mammals! The one thing I completely like about the film is that the animators have clearly taken great care as they brought the animals to life—all of the movements are right and the body language is perfect. The interactions between actors and CGI largely worked; it wasn’t quite seamless, but I never felt thrown out of the film when the animals came into a room full of humans. RDJ also did a pretty solid job of interacting with the menagerie. It wasn’t quite up to the Brendan Fraser Battles The Mummy gold standard of CGI acting, but then, what is?

The animal characters are also varied, though not quite distinct or consistent enough for me. The gorilla (Rami Malek) is neurotic and fearful, and a lot of his arc is about overcoming fear. This starts out strong (and a GREAT thing to deal with in a kids’ movie) but kind of peters out in the second half. John Cena’s polar bear is bro-y, and trying to establish a friendship with Kumail Nanjiani’s ostrich. There’s a lovesick dragonfly played by Jason Mantzoukis, and a slapstick duck played by Octavia Spencer who thinks she’s the one running Dolittle veterinary practice. Emma Thompson plays a parrot who has become Dolittle’s main caretaker, and also serves as our narrator.

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

Now you might be asking yourself: Why does Dolittle, a human who is being played by a person as handsome and charming as RDJ, need a parrot to take care of him? Well, herein lies the main flaw of the film, which is that I don’t think anyone ever decided what this movie should be. When we meet Dolittle, he’s a grieving, taciturn recluse, blaming himself for the death of his partner (she died in a shipwreck—perhaps she crashed the boat into a refrigerator?) and unwilling to deal with humans at all. There are moments when RDJ commits to this and acts like his character is in a far darker movie, one that was meant for older kids who could handle a a more dramatic tone. But then a millisecond after we’re expected to take his grief seriously the polar bear will trip over something and land on the ostrich, and we’re supposed to laugh uproariously at basic slapstick.

There are points when Dolittle wants to be the story of a sensitive boy who goes on an adventure and finds a unique family along the way, and there are points when it wants RDJ to… battle a pirate? I think? I promise I watched the movie. I paid attention. I just don’t think it matters that I paid attention. The film crashes through so many tonal switchbacks it felt like the emotional equivalent of an Appalachian moonshine run. And of course it’s structured around the standard questions: will Eccentric Male Genius use his Special Skill to save a Special Woman? Or will he be too destroyed by grief for a Different Special Woman to do it? Will he accept New Special Boy as his apprentice? Will he defeat his Oily Nemesis? But all this tropey stuff is so saturated in standard kid movie humor (do you know that dogs enjoy sniffing butts? DO YOU???) that it becomes impossible to invest in the tropes, even.

Also Dolittle is friends with a young Queen Victoria (?????) and there’s a dark and disturbing regicide plot that shows very little knowledge of succession. And Dolittle, who, once again, is a whimsical veterinarian who can speak with animals, has a nemesis high up in the British government, who is jealous that he can’t speak to animals quite as well? (He’s played by Michael Sheen, who puts way more spark into his character than any of us deserve.) And we’re kind of in England, but also kind of in a fantasy realm with secret pirate islands, and magical worlds that might turn out to be real. And rather than centering on Dolittle’s ability to talk to animals, or his veterinary practice, or the idea that he should find and train an apprentice, the film exhausts itself on a steampunky Jules Verne-esque race against time.

I feel I should also mention that this film, unlike the 1967 version, is not a musical—which is a shame since anyone who’s seen Mr. Willoughby’s Christmas Tree should be eager to see RDJ sing and dance with animals again. And I regret to report that not a single Seal Wife was yeeted.

As you know if you’ve ever read one of my reviews, I love it when a movie tries to do a bunch of different things. But in this case none of those things coalesces, and the movie keeps hopping from idea to idea until it feels like you’ve watched a really long trailer. Which is frustrating because, and I’m sorry if this is more than you wanted in your Dolittle review, there’s there potential for a really good classic coming-of-age film buried in here. We’re introduced to Dolittle’s would-be apprentice, a sweet kid named Stubbins. Stubbins doesn’t want to be a hunter like his uncle. (Yes, his uncle is seemingly a professional hunter, in London. Let’s move on.) Stubbins loves animals, but everyone thinks he’s crazy.

When he first stumbles across Dolittle’s animal refuge, it feels very much like the moment Lucy goes through the back of the wardrobe, or Harry gets his first glimpse of Diagon Alley. For a few joyous moments, the film seems to be whispering, There’s a different world available to you, weird kid! The thing people hate you for is useful here. There are many paths in life, and you don’t have to just march down the one your authority figures want you to.

 

Because it is weird, because this isn’t just a kid who loves dogs, or a kid who adores his prizewinning pig, or a kid who wants to be a vet when he grows up, this is a kid who accepts all animals as they are. He’s as cool with ants as he is with squirrels, and so is John Dolittle. Both of them share a gift for empathy which would have been considered weird in Early-Victorian England, and, I would argue, is still considered a little weird today, at least on this side of the globe. The first instinct most people have when they see a bug is to smush it. Most people consider animals on an x/y axis of cute and useful and go from there. What Dolittle does, in its best moments, is assume that all animals have a basic right to life and liberty whether they’re icky or adorable. (A huge plot point is the idea that a gorilla deserves therapy sessions, ffs.) I can’t help but imagine the movie that leaned into the core concept of a lonely, misunderstood kid who wants to talk to animals, and the grieving man who becomes his father figure. How much more interesting if the film had become that—a misfit boy stumbles into a magical world and discovers, not magic, but empathy as a skill he can develop. A tool he can use to make the world better. How lucky for the weird kids who needed a new fantasy right about now to see that movie! A movie that encouraged them to care about other creatures, and by extension, people, about a power they could actually practice in life? With, sure, some slapstick and gross-out humor, but also with a real heart? And maybe if at all possible a plot that made sense?

I want that movie.

Instead, we get Wackity Schmackity Dolittle, where actors in a variety of recording booths say disconnected catchphrases to be pasted over soulless CGI slapstick, and in the middle of it all RDJ occasionally reminds us that he’s an incredible actor, and maybe your kids are entertained for an hour, and maybe that’s enough? But imagine what we could have had.

Fine, Leah Schnelbach does still want to talk to the animals. Come join them in yelling JUSTICE FOR SEAL WIFE on Twitter!

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