Robert Downey Jr. has seemingly reached a cultural status that very few have before. The “Iron Man” and “Avengers” star has been heralded for his role as Tony Stark for the past 12 years, and his non-Marvel roles since taking on the central hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been few and far between.
Perhaps it is that cultural status that explains “Dolittle,” the 2020 reimagining of the classic story of a doctor that can speak to animals, first conceived in the early 2000’s with Eddie Murphy.
Why a star of such acclaim would select a project that can only really be defined as odd, in every sense of the word, is beyond the reaches of this simple review, but perhaps it can only be explored through the lens of that cultural status that Downey has achieved.
As big as he is, who cares what role he takes on?
Regardless of that, and the truly and fully committed performance that Downey does give, the uncanny valley nature of the animals, the abysmal sense of humor, and some truly odd story beats that feel lifted out of a 90’s movie create a film that wants to entertain children and adults, but never fully commits to either audience, leaving everyone in the figurative dust as it laughs at its own juvenile sense of humor.
The story of the film starts off simply enough; after losing his adventurous wife to an expedition, the retired and somewhat insane Dr. Dolittle (Downey) is beckoned by the Queen, who falls ill to a mysterious disease. Downey must journey alongside his band of animals, voiced by such talents as Rami Malek and Octavia Spencer, and a young apprentice (a truly terrific Harry Collett) to find a mystery island and a cure for the Queen’s sickness.
The story takes many twists and turns along the roughly 100-minute runtime, such as a 30-minute distraction on an island ruled by a lion-taming, black eye makeup ridden Antonio Banderas, that makes the film feel so dated and unoriginal that it might as well have released 30 years ago.
Given that, the element of the film that makes it a modern work of cinema, the photo-realistic CGI animals, are one of the weakest parts of the film. Never quite realistic enough to be convincing as real animals, yet not cartoonish enough to be self-aware, one has to wonder if this is a property better fit for a fully animated film.
When inside and interacting with the doctor himself, the animals, including a dog with glasses voiced by Tom Holland, and a beanie-wearing polar bear that can’t stay warm voiced by John Cena, are quite convincing, but when required to do anything remotely physical, the uncanny valley rears its ugly head, and the visuals more closely resemble an Xbox 360 game, rather than an animated film with animals in a post “Lion King” remake world.
The worst of this film’s many crimes is the one film a comedy film can never commit; it is simply not funny. The humor is too complex to be funny for children, yet too juvenile to be funny for adults.
The resulting mix is a concoction that only made me laugh at the absolute absurdity of what I was watching, rather than the repetitive puns and bodily function jokes.
If you had told me that I would despise a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. in 2020, I would have laughed in your face and called you a liar. “Dolittle” proved me to be the liar.
A dated story, weak visuals, and unfunny writing ruin a perfectly wonderful cast, and create the first big flop of 2020. Do yourself a favor; “1917” and countless other (and better) films in theaters right now.