Dolittle (Gaghan, 2020)

I happened to screen Dolittle on the same morning I got a newsletter update from a non-profit about the Australian wildfires. I am told that over one billion animals have been destroyed as land mass twice the size of Switzerland has been scorched. As the film opens, Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey, Jr.) lives alone on a vast nature preserve. I doubt it is half the size of Switzerland, but it is big enough and well populated enough to make me wonder just how rich the Victorian Queen of England had to be to gift such an estate to a veterinarian and just how many colonies had to be siphoned of their resources (natural and biological) to sustain such displays of colonial wealth.

It turns out the Dolittle books, which I remember reading and enjoying well enough as a kid, were not Victorian artifacts but products of nostalgia for the Victorian era. They were actually conceived and born in World War I, when a different continent was on fire.

The last two paragraphs are, I realize, a horrible start for a review of a cutesy animated film dumped into the January wasteland for parents who just can’t stand the thought of taking their kids to see Star Wars for the zillionth time. It’s not so much that Dolittle needs to justify its existence in a world beset by ecological and political crises. But that fact that I was thinking about such things five minutes into it suggests to me that the movie isn’t really engaging on its own terms. I don’t recall feeling distracted from rooting for Paddington because his immigrant experience was a reminder of other kinds of immigrants in other kinds of detention centers.

Admittedly, my issue with Dolittle is largely one of conception rather than execution. Given the glut of other choices one has generic family viewing, a new Dolittle film ought at least answer the question of why this subject matter needs to be revisited here and now and why audiences should care enough to leave their Eddie Murphy or Rex Harrison DVDs at home and shuffle off to the multiplex for ninety minutes of commercially slick but largely lifeless cartoon foolery.

I suppose that reason is advances in technology rather than freshness of ideas or interpretation. And sure, anyone who has not seen The Lion King or Jumanji or Jurassic Park or played Myst on an Apple IIe is bound to be wonder struck by a talking polar bear that looks like an animated polar bear rather than a guy in a polar bear suit. But even if fresh graphics gets butts in the seat, don’t they have to be in service of some sort of story?

The story here is plodding and predictable in every way. There is an animated before-the-title sequence telling of Dr. Dolittle’s amazing love story and adventures that attempts to emulate Pixar’s Up, I guess. (Might as well steal from the best if you aren’t going to come up with your own ideas.) Then a boy shoots a squirrel, a bird takes him to the secluded doctor and someone states the film’s coda that if he keeps other humans out he will never be hurt again. He also won’t be able to rescue the queen who has sent an envoy to find him. I wonder if her treatment will entail a perilous adventure that forces Dolittle to reconnect with the world and start living again?

Actually, I didn’t wonder. And that’s the problem. Five minutes into a one hundred minute movie, and most any viewer over six can probably tell you not only what’s going to happen in the last ninety-five minutes, but how it is going to happen.

I am sure all this makes it sound like I hated the movie. I didn’t. Dolittle is a piece of coal shoveled into the forge that is the commercial movie industry. It’s job is to keep the engine running from now until the next MCU or Star Wars or Harry Potter movie. If it can be entertaining and engaging in the process, so much the better. But if it can’t…we’ll go anyway.

Postscript #1 — The sound mixing was either off in my theater or in the film itself. I assume (but don’t know) that most of the voice talent recorded their lines in a studio and that Robert Downey, Jr. filmed his scenes with … someone in a polar bear suit or a sock puppet standing in for a character or an intern reading the lines. I would further assume (but don’t know) that he had lots of practice doing stuff like this in eight or so MCU movies. But I’m reminded of watching The Island and wondering if it was easier for Ewan McGregor to pretend he was talking to a clone of himself or to pretend he was talking to Jar Jar Binks. I mean, the animation is great, but the cadences seem wrong, and things can *look* totally authentic and still not feel convincing.

Postscript #2 — A part of me wanted to do publicity for this movie so that I could ask Octavia Spencer if it is harder to imagine that you are God (The Shack) or to imagine that you are a talking goose. But I didn’t think there was any way to ask such a question without it coming across as snide, even though I genuinely think she’s a talented and articulate person and her answer would probably be more interesting than anything that would come from my asking about this actual movie.

Postscript #3 — My deceased sister-in-law used to chide me from time to time back when I graded films for giving a high grade with mixed comments. “That’s a ‘B’ review,” she would say of my comments regarding some film to which I gave a begrudging “A.” I’m tempted to give Dolittle a “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes for prompting such wistful but happy memories. That and because I can’t really say that it is bad.

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