Silly me, in anticipation of Dolittle, I read Hugh Lofting’s Newbury Award-winning The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, the second book in his series about the veterinarian who can talk to animals. If possible, I always like to check out the source material of any big screen movie adaptation so I can see what similarities the two might have, take note of things that have been left out or changed and gain a further appreciation of the story. Imagine my surprise that while sitting through this lackluster movie I realized it has literally nothing to do with the novel, other than the fact that the erstwhile doctor and his animal crew do take a trip. Here I thought writer/director Stephen Gaghan would be doing a faithful rendition of a children’s classic instead of a simplistic, dumbed-down adventure obviously intended to be the first film in what Universal Pictures was hoping to be a lucrative franchise.
And that’s the problem with Dolittle, its lack of ambition and wasted potential. There’s a sense here that this could have been a truly unique, special film, hinted at by references to the titular character’s concerns for animal welfare and, by extension, the environment. Instead, Gaghan seems content to deliver standard children’s fare replete with cute animal characters, a simplistic story and plenty of opportunities for “inspired-by” toys to be sold.
Gaghan invents a back story for Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) that’s dispensed with quickly during a rather crudely rendered animated prologue. Seems the poor doctor has lost the love of his life, an explorer gone missing during an expedition and has retreated to his massive animal sanctuary, nursing a broken heart, eschewing any further emotional commitments where other people are concerned. However, news arrives that the Queen of England (Jessie Buckley) has fallen dangerously ill and, upon examination by the doctor, it’s determined that the only thing that will cure her is a fruit found in a far-off land.
Pretty standard stuff, which is surprising considering Gaghan’s background, as he was the writer of Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic as well as the director of Syriana, which he also penned. With the possible exception of Lars von Trier, I can’t think of a filmmaker more ill-suited to this material. With Gaghan’s name attached I was hoping for something with a bit of substance to it, yet there’s little to suggest this was anything but a paycheck gig for the filmmaker. I’m assuming this was the same reason for participation from Michael Sheen, as the villain from central casting, and Antonio Banderas, as Dolittle’s bitter father-in-law.
As far as Downey is concerned, this is a bit of a head scratcher. He obviously doesn’t need the money, and if the intent was for him to take on a character that is the polar opposite of Tony Stark, he succeeds. His performance consists of a questionable English accent, wide-eyed reactions and a rather low-key approach to the entire affair. He doesn’t necessarily give a performance as much as mug his way through the film, resulting in a rather embarrassing effort that will not be remembered as his best.
To be sure, the computer-animated animals are, for the most part, a delight and the roster of talent corralled for the voice cast bring what energy they can to their pixeled counterparts. Of particular note, Octavia Spencer as the farsighted duck, Dab Dab, provides a chuckle or two, while Emma Thompson as the all-knowing macaw, Poly, offers a degree of gravitas where necessary.
In the end, Dolittle is a disposable trifle, a project plagued by missed opportunities and questionable choices. Funny thing is, Lofting’s novel is a delightful, progressive work that, had it been faithfully adapted, would have probably resulted in a very special movie. Yep, it was sitting right in front of them the whole time.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.