Film review: ‘DOLITTLE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The latest cinema incarnation of Dr Dolittle begins promisingly. Through an old school animated montage, we learn of the Victorian-era vet, Dr John Dolittle’s unique ability to talk to animals, his global quest to free them from suffering, his marriage to the love of his life, Lily and his retreat behind the walls of his animal sanctuary following her death. It’s a charming and even moving way of catching people up with the good doctor. Unfortunately, this segment ends all too quickly as does this film’s tolerability as it quickly descends into the unappealing filmmaking style that has marred many recent fantasy adventures.

In this film a bearded, unkempt and slightly deranged Dr Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr with an unconvincing Welsh accent) is dragged from his depressed state when he’s summoned to Queen Victoria’s (Jessie Buckley) bedside to treat her for a mysterious illness. Upon discovering the only cure for her ailment is a rare plant from a far off and mysterious island, Dolittle, his young apprentice Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and a collection of cgi animal buddies, that include a neurotic gorilla (voiced by Rami Malek), a polar bear who hates the cold (John Cena), a sassy duck (Octavia Spencer) and a parrot (Emma Thompson) who acts as Dolittle’s trusted advisor, set off across the seas in search of the precious remedy. Their quest is threatened, though, by pirate king Rassouli, who was also Lily’s father and Dolittle’s nemesis, the bitterly jealous rival, Dr Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen).

Stuffed with loud slapstick gags, shrill, manic performances, Americanised animal characters, irritating clichéd catchphrases, contemporary references and unconvincing cgi, this film soon grates and continues to do so to the end (at least for adults). Most of the humour seems to be designed to appeal to 12-year-olds who will more than likely enjoy the film’s hyperactive energy and the animals’ quirkiness and irreverence. For older audiences, the film is much more appealing in those fleeting moments when it tones down the cgi, the pantomime hijinks, the mania and headache inducing noise and situates the story in a believable 19th century world. The appeal of the historical environment lies in the fact that a disconnected pre-digital world offers the chance for adventure and a journey into the unknown.

As Dolittle, Robert Downey Jr makes very little impression, he’s more a collection of quirks and tics than a complete or believable person. As his sensitive apprentice Tommy – who is also the identifiable character for the intended young audience – Harry Collett is agreeable but also has little to do amid the parade of cgi creatures. As the villain Dr Mudfly, Michael sheen is way over the top and seems more like a character from children’s TV. Not surprisingly, the most convincing performance comes from Antonio Banderas as the ruthless and calculating Rassouli.

Thankfully, this is not a musical so there’s none of the painful talk-singing that tormented audiences in the 1967 version with Rex Harrison. That’s a minor compensation for the opportunities wasted in this mostly irritating film.

Nick’s rating: **

Genre: Fantasy adventure.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Stephen Gaghan.

Release date: 16th Jan 2020.

Running time: 106 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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