Are movie stars a thing anymore? One of the consequences of cinema’s shift to the global market and franchise filmmaking is a decline in movies built around their casts. I mean sure, we still have A-list actors, but I think it’s hard to say they compare to the classic Hollywood idea of a “star.” Just look at one of the highest-grossing box office stars of all time, Robert Downey Jr. He was the highest paid actor in the world between 2013 and 2015 and should be one of the most recognizable people on the planet, having starred in the highest-grossing film ever made as recently as last year. But were people showing up Avengers Endgame to see Robert Downey Jr. or Tony Stark? How many people are out there who have Iron Man tattoos but haven’t even heard of Zodiac, Chaplin, or Weird Science? And will those same people show up to watch him get farted on by CGI animals? The answer is: I don’t know. Because this narrative, like so much of 2020, has been thrown off completely thanks to the global pandemic. The state of the industry back in January has already become irrelevant. Case in point: while it would be nice to call Dolittle a commercial disappointment, it likely will remain the sixth highest-grossing film of 2020.
Dolittle begins oddly similarly to Frozen: an animated sequence tells of us someone born with magical powers who isolates themself after their loved one is lost at sea. In this case that person is Dr. John Dolittle (RDJ) and his gift is the ability to talk with animals. Unlike Frozen, Dolittle does not elaborate on the source of the doctor’s powers, which appear to mostly be a learned skill. What it does really focus on his how much he loved his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), who sailed off to sea without him and got killed by what our terrible president would call “big water, ocean water.” Dolittle won’t shut up about his wife even though she’s been dead for years, which makes you think she’ll turn out to be alive or something at the end, but no, it’s as simple as she’s gone and he’s sad. So sad he walled off his sanctuary and cut off all contact with the human world.
In the present (generic Victorian times) we meet Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a nice boy who’s being taught to hunt by his uncle Arnall (Ralph Ineson, the dad from The VVitch). We can tell he doesn’t want to be a hunter, but peer pressure’s a bitch. Tommy intentionally misses shooting a duck and accidentally hits a red squirrel, wounding the poor creature. Tommy’s uncle tells him to put it out of its misery and then walks away. That’s some bad parenting, you should probably stick around for this part dude. Tommy picks the squirrel up and then spots a parrot, which leads him to Dolittle’s estate. Tommy sneaks onto the property but then steps in a trap and gets tied up in a tree, like that part when Chewie grabs the weird tree meat in Return of the Jedi. A polar bear wearing a chullo wanders out to investigate him.
Meanwhile, Dolittle is playing chess with a gorilla. The chess pieces are mice, like living actual mice. Despite this, when the gorilla gets flustered he turns around and appears to be preparing to poop on the board. Dolittle and the mice panic and try to get the gorilla’s attention. He turns around and realizes he was only one move away from checkmate. So instead the gorilla wins the game, to everyone’s relief. I should say that at this point in the movie, Dolittle is speaking to animals in their own languages. He grunts with the gorilla, squeaks with the mice, barks with the dog, etc. It’s the easiest his character is to understand in the whole movie, as when he speaks in “English,” Dolittle is dubbed in by Downey whispering in a heavy Welsh accent. Dude whispers more than Jack Bauer.
Tommy being trapped sets off an alarm. At this point, Dolittle does the Hunt for Red October thing were it has the doctor switch from animal speak to English mid-sentence. He tells the animals to just pretend the boy isn’t there. However, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a young girl who is a maid of honor to the Queen of England, shows up and let’s Tommy down from the net. They enter the Dolittle house and Tommy convinces the doctor to operate on the squirrel. He does, saving the squirrel’s life. It turns out the squirrel is named Kevin, is played by Craig Robinson, and will spend the rest of the movie talking about how Tommy is a ruthless killer which everyone else will ignore. I think he’s my favorite character, even though he feels like he’s in a different movie form everyone else.
We also get a sense of who the main animals are at this point. The leader is that parrot, Poly, who Emma Thompson plays as the voice of reason. She’s also the narrator when the movie wants to skip over scenes that have been deleted. The gorilla is named Chee-Chee and I was absolutely shocked to find out he was played by Rami Malek, because the entire movie I just assumed he was Josh Gad. You’re telling me this is Mr. Robot? Chee-Chee’s thing is he’s a coward, which will prompt Dolittle to constantly reassure him “it’s OK to be scared” which is as funny in the movie as it was in the trailer. The polar bear is called Yoshi and played by John Cena, the invisible man. Yoshi is always cold, that’s why he wears the hat and chooses to live in England. Then there’s Octavia Spencer as Dab-Dab, a duck who’s main thing is Dolittle will ask her to find something and, no matter what, she always just comes back with a leak. The final member of the main squad is Plimpton, an ostrich played by Kumail Nanjiani who I assume was added very late because most of his scenes are just his disembodied head popping into frame to tell a joke.
Lady Rose tells Dolittle that he’s been summoned to tend to Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), so he lets his animals bathe and shave him. The animals load up into Lady Rose’s carriage while Dolittle himself rides Plimpton to Buckingham Palace. It’s there we are introduced to the Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), who are attempting to attend to the queen but obviously are the ones responsible for her being ill. Müdfly and Dolittle are old rivals from their school days, and Badgley is a forgettable blank slate that we won’t really see again until the end of the movie. Dolittle has his glasses-wearing dog (Tom Holland) sniff the queen and help him determine that her only hope is a magical Eden fruit which coincidentally only grows on the island that Lily died sailing to all those years ago. Rose reminds Dolittle that if the queen dies he’ll lose his sanctuary, so he resolves to go find the fruit himself.
Tommy asks to become Dolittle’s apprentice, but is sent home. There his uncle expresses concern not that he disappeared in the middle of a hunt, but instead that he doesn’t like hurting animals and theirs is a hunting family. But the movie really doesn’t care about this subplot, Tommy has already made his mind up and we won’t see or hear of his family again. Tommy sneaks out with the help of Poly and some of Dolittle other animals: a giraffe (Selena Gomez) and a fox (Marion Cotillard). These two animals are tough, which you know because this is where Dolittle makes the requisite Star Wars reference by having the fox say “we’re wanted animals. I have the death sentence on twelve forests.” They run through London and manage to get Tommy to Dolittle’s ship before it’s too late. Tommy jumps on board and demands Dolittle allow him to become his apprentice, an offer he can’t refuse.
Badgley dispatches Müdfly in a warship to stop Dolittle from saving the queen. They catch up immediately and open fire, so Dolittle puts on a diving suit and harnesses his ship to a humpback whale. Chee-Chee is tasked with pulling Dolittle back up, but he loses his nerve because he’s afraid, which, again, is perfectly fine. Tommy and the others pull the doctor up and thanks to whale speed they easily outrun the warship. The crew continues on to their next destination: a pirate island ruled by King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who just so happens to also be Lily’s grieving father. Dolittle needs to break into Rassouli’s castle to steal back Lily’s diary, as it’s the only way he’ll be able to locate the island with the Eden fruit.
So now we go on a sneaking mission which feels heavily abridged. In a matter of seconds Dolittle and Tommy make it through the village and into the castle, where they run into the only real challenge in this whole sequence: a locked door. This is when Dolittle calls upon the services of a dragonfly (Jason Mantzoukas) to negotiate with a colony of army ants to pick the lock. For some reason the lead ant is like The Godfather? He says the whole “day my daughter is to be married” thing. Anyway, the ants get the door open but Dolittle and Tommy end up getting captured by Rassouli anyway.
Rassouli sentences Dolittle to die in the one way he surely can escape: by locking him in a cage with a tiger. The tiger is Ralph Fiennes, who is bitter because Dolittle used to be his therapist but then left before he could help him work through his mommy issues. Tommy sends the dragonfly back to the ship, where Poly musters the troops. She has Yoshi blow up a building with dynamite (yay terrorism) and Chee-Chee break into Dolittle’s cell. Chee-Chee bravely knocks the tiger out, having finally overcome his fear because we’re far enough in the movie for that to be over. This is all disappointing, as seeing Dolittle actually solve a problem on his own would have been interesting, as would Chee-Chee’s cowardice actually having a negative consequence. Instead, we get to be bored. At least there was some terrorism.
The gang reunite only to run into Müdfly again, who sinks their ship and steals the journal. He also openly talks about wanting to kill the queen in front of his generic British soldiers, who I guess are just fine with that? Seems pretty fucked up. Dolittle admits defeat and tells the animals he’s happy they all got over their problems, because he’ll never get over his dead wife. That speech is overheard by Rassouli, who has a change of heart and lends his shittiest boat to Dolittle. When they get on board they find a man in the stockades (Sid Sagar) who joyously says, “hi I’m Jeff.” I shit you not, we never see this man again. We don’t even find out if they let him out. I’m sure SId Sagar has got an interesting story to tell about his involvement in this movie.
Dolittle uses the whales again, this time to track Müdfly’s warship. They easily find the island and once again there’s a very short sneaking mission. This feels like a huge missed opportunity to actually show a fun exotic location. Instead, they immediately end up in a boring cave where Müdfly and his troops once again get the jump on the gang demand Dolittle reveal where the Eden fruit tree is at gunpoint. He says he doesn’t know, which causes Müdfly to pout and accidentally awaken… a dragon. I was expecting giant animals, but an actual mystical monster surprised me. The dragon breathes fire and vomits orange goo on the soldiers, causing Müdfly to seemingly fall to his death. When the dragon then sets upon Tommy and the animals, Dolittle runs out and attempts to speak with the ancient beast.
The dragon (Frances de la Tour) tells Dolittle that just because he can understand her, it doesn’t mean he can understand her pain. Dolittle glances over to a dragon skull and then says he does understand, he knows what it’s like to lose a mate. I’m sure kids love this shit. The dragon agrees to let them all go, but Dolittle refuses to leave. He decides this dragon needs a doctor and convinces her to roll over on her side. He then goes to the back of the dragon and… starts pulling things out of her butt. After removing a bunch of swords and armor, the dragon lets out a massive fart right in the doctor’s face – probably a solid 10 seconds of farting followed by a minute of fart jokes. AFTER THAT, Dolittle goes back in and yanks a bagpipe out. I mean, good lord. Her pain relieved, the dragon reveals the secret entryway to the tree, where the gang can grab an Eden fruit. For some reason they just take one. Don’t be greedy, I guess? Also don’t do anything surprising.
Back at Buckingham Palace, the gang break into the queen’s room just as Badgley is about to pronounce her dead. They do some stunts to get across the room and Tommy juices the fruit over the queen’s head, which instantly revives her. Dolittle’s stick bug tells him that Badgley has the poison in his pocket, which Dolittle reveals and the queen quickly has him arrested. Is Lady Rose going to do anything, after we spent so much time setting her up at the start of this story? Nope! Women in this movie exist only to be sad, be dead, or be almost dead. With the nation saved, Dolittle re-opens his clinic with Tommy officially hired on as his apprentice. Cue an original song by Sia written for Dolittle called, fittingly enough, “Original.”
So yeah, if movie stars are a thing what are so many Academy Award-nominated folks doing in this movie? Or do kids these days just really love folks like Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Emma Thompson, and Octavia Spencer? And Downey, come on man, what’s the deal with your voice? Did you think you had to overact or else the CGI animals would get all the attention? It’s like you tried to do all the things the characters in Tropic Thunder were mocked for at the same time. Were you worried your Sherlock Holmes accent was too good and you needed to lower the bar for yourself? How does this happen?
What’s even weirder is that Dolittle was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who also has an Academy Award for his script for Traffic! You know, the Steven Soderbergh crime drama about the futility of the war on drugs? They got that guy to make a kids movie about dragon farts. Although it sounds like it’s not really fair to judge him by the final cut of Dolittle, as it was the result of extensive rewrites, re-shoots, and re-editing that were out of his control. Jonathan Liebesman, the Battle: Los Angeles guy, directed the re-shoots, while a cavalcade of writers were brought into to punch up the script, including Chris McKay, John Whittington, Seth Rogen and Brendan O’Brien.
Downey apparently was also involved in the re-writing process too. I think the poor guy spent the decade thinking he was a star when really he was just the dude playing the dude. Marvel broke his brain, and now out there thinking he’s got to turn Sherlock in a cinematic universe. Maybe he thought that’s what Dolittle could be, given it’s somewhat open ending and the fact that it has a mid-credits stinger (which doesn’t actually tease anything, Michael Sheen turns out to be alive at the bottom of that cave but then gets eaten by bats). I hope someone can help him remember the guy he was before all this, but then again, maybe he knows there’s not a place in the world for that guy anymore. He is big, but the pictures got huge.