As I get older and see more movies, I realize that nostalgia cannot always work for movies I liked as a kid. Sure, some movies are classics and speak to the child in all of us (The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, E.T., and a number of Disney films), but some are sadly ones we look back on and wonder, “What was I thinking?!?!”. I recently revisited the original first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies from the early 90s, and while the first one is still passable, the second one (the one with Vanilla Ice) is now just laughable. I predict kids who see Dolittle will say the same thing if they choose to revisit it as an adult, since any adults these days who are forced to see it will do what they can to forget it (even more so for the adults who were part of the film).
Back in 1967, the titular role of Doctor Dolittle (unseen by me) was played by theater great Rex Harrison. In the late 1990s, it was Eddie Murphy (the first was enjoyable to me as a kid, but I stopped caring after the second sequel). Now the role is in the hands of Robert Downey Jr. (in his first role after leaving the MCU). Set in the 19th century, we learn in an animated prelude (which was very well animated, and one of the few things of the film I actually was fine with) that his wife Lily (Kasia Smmutniak) is an adventurer who has died at sea. Understandably depressed, Dolittle has secluded himself in his mansion (that was once paid for by the Queen) in isolation. One day, a boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) is out hunting with his family, though very unwillingly so. When he purposely misses shooting ducks, he hits a squirrel. Rather than put it out of its misery, he stumbles upon the Dolittle mansion.
At this point, we encounter one of the films many problems. We first see Dolittle talking to the animals as any human would: using animal sounds. We get a close up of him, and it changes to him speaking normally to the animals who now speak clear English to him as well. There is no consistancy in the communication between the doctor and the animals.
At the same time that Stubbins drops in, we meet Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who has been sent to deliver disturbing news: Queen Victoria (Jesse Buckley) has fallen ill. When the Doctor arrives, we discover the only known cure is from a mystical island that Dolittle’s late wife was looking for as she perished.
There is also a side plot involving Dolittle’s father in law, who blames the Doctor for Lily’s death. The father in law (named Rassouli, a name I don’t remember being uttered but it was on wiki so I guess it works) is played by the just recently Oscar nominated Antonio Banderas.
Wait, there is another side plot I forgot involving Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen). A former classmate of Dolittle’s, Mudfly is summoned by Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent, another wonderful actor who I had to find his character name on wiki) to make sure Dolittle & Company fail and that the Queen dies (not sure why they wanted the Queen to die, but whatever). There are no points given in finding out right away that Mudfly is the bad guy. In fact, points should be taken away if you did not know that.
If you thought the cast I have mentioned so far is a waste of talent, wait till you hear who the animals are voiced by. Emma Thompson is a wise parrot (as well as the films narrator). Rami Malek is a kind but not so confident Gorilla. Tom Holland is a loyal dog with glasses (for some reason). Octavia Spencer is a duck. Ralph Fiennes is a tiger. Selena Gomez is a giraffe. Marion Cotillard is a fox (with only a few lines). Finally, Kumail Nanjiani is the ostrich who becomes friends with Yoshi the Polar Bear, played by John Cena.
While none of these actors are untalented, they fail because of the script they are given (which is also mind boggling, when you remember that the film’s director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan wrote movies like Traffic and Syrianna, admittedly two vastly different films).
As stated, the film is set in the 19th Century, but the animals are all talking like they are from the 21st. I understand that it is to appeal more to children, but the theater I was in (which did not have many, thought it was a 5pm show on a thursday) had virtually zero laughs from the adults. As for the kids (maybe two or so in the audience), I think I heard three laughs tops.
There is actual detrimental material here for kids, because we have all encountered wild animals at one point or another in our lives. Whether it be a close pet we chat with or a squirrel we honk our horn at to move out of the way. We like to think we are talking with them.
When I get home from work, there is always a nice welcome for me from my dog, Molly (the newer dog, Charlie, is another matter). There is a weird sense of appreciation we get from pets that makes us want to talk to them. Animals (especially pets) help take us out of our daily lives and remember the natural elements of the world.
Parents, if all you are worried about is violence/sexuality/swearing, you are fine. There is none of that here (even the wounded squirrel, who took a shotgun blast to the chest, was not bleeding). The one exception is the post credit scene, where a character is surrounded by bats. While it is played for laughs, I think it would generally scare children.
Though I am not a parent, I would still argue that this movie is not engaging or smart enough for any child over the ages of 5-6. It is as if the filmmakers forgot that kids in a movie theater are actually smarter than they realize.
Dolittle also is unclear on its message. At first, I thought it would be on how to be kind to animals (after all, God did tell Noah to have two of every kind on the ark). The film just became about an adventure that no one asked for.
Somehow, Dolittle did give me a feeling I never expected.
A feeling of nostalgia.
…for the movie CATS.