Review: 'Dolittle' does just enough to qualify as sanitized family entertainment
Take my film critic credentials and throw them in the ocean. "Dolittle" is not good...it's quite bad in fact. Still, there's worse ways to spend a weekend afternoon with the kiddies. A glowing endorsement, right?
Every ounce of my being is informing me to rip "Dolittle" to shreds, and to jump on the wave of negative reviews that it's been getting thus far (as I write this, at 17%, "Dolittle" has a worse RottenTomatoes score than "Cats" at 20%). It's hard to fathom that Robert Downey Jr. is a two-time Oscar nominee, but has spent the last decade in mega-blockbusters primarily as either Tony Stark/Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes. Selecting Dr. Dolittle - a veterinarian who can literally speak to animals - as his follow-up project seems to confirm that his career is on auto-pilot, and that he's no longer interested in challenging himself in any way. Yet - and this is a theme I'll return to a few times in this review - things could have been much worse.
The character of Dr. Dolittle was first made popular with the 1967 film, "Doctor Dolittle," starring Rex Harrison, but actually the origin of the character comes from a series of children's books by Hugh Lofting back in the 1920s. Now that these books have hit the public domain, it seems like a lame attempt by Universal Pictures to milk this character any further...Dr. Dolittle was of course, re-invented with Eddie Murphy in the role, in a series of films that spanned from 1998 until a fifth-and-final direct-to-DVD installment, "Dr. Dolittle: Million Dollar Mutts" was released in 2009. It's not exactly a character that children, or adults, seem to be clamoring for.
And yet, we arrive at "Dolittle," curiously directed by Stephen Gaghan, the guy responsible for writing raw political thrillers like "Traffic," Rules of Engagement" and "Syriana," who now finds himself writing fart jokes starring talking polar bears, monkeys and parrots. Nothing in this film is particularly new, or frankly, particularly works. It's not that inventive, it's overrun with cartoonish CG, and it sticks to conventional themes and premises.
But here's the thing: I've seen a lot of BAD movies aimed at kids, and this is just not one of them. It is NOT painful to sit through. The acting is passable for a family adventure. I actually think kids will really like it. It's sort of "Pirates of the Caribbean"-Lite, where instead of a drunk Captain and some PG-13 tendencies, we get a strange Doctor reviving squirrels by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Can we all do better? Of course. Is Robert Downey Jr.'s career in need of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation just as much as the squirrel? An emphatic yes. And is "Dolittle" the type of move that is going to woo or win over critics, all of whom (including me) know that better family movies exist? Of course not.
"Dolittle" does very little, but in this instance, a little is just enough.
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Family.
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett.
Voices of: Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez.
Co-Written and Directed by Stephen Gaghan ("Gold," "Syriana,").
"Dolittle" is in theaters on Friday, January 17th, 2020.
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