Movie Guru: ‘Dolittle’ didn’t do it for many, but it still has merit
Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Screenplay by: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand
Screen story by: Thomas Shepherd
Character created by: Hugh Lofting
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland and more
Grade: Three stars out of four
The majority of critics are going to tell you that “Dolittle” is terrible.
The main theme of their arguments is that the plot and visuals are chaotic and the movie lacks dramatic depth.
The truth is, however, that the plot is infinitely more coherent than that of the source books and perfectly captures what it would feel like to be surrounded by talking animals. The story is light and sweet enough not to overwhelm kids, full of an innocence that is hard to find in movies nowadays. Yes, there are a few stumbles, including Robert Downey Jr.’s accent, but overall it’s a fun movie.
It’s just not the kind of movie that critics usually like.
The movie, which is more in line with the books than the Eddie Murphy incarnation of the story, starts with a beautifully animated prologue that sets up the premise. We then follow a young man and an injured squirrel as they head to Dr. Dolittle’s house, which is full of animals. Dolittle has shut himself off from the world, talking only to his animal friends. When an emergency arises, however, he and his friends have to go on an adventure to help save the day.
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The most surprising thing about the movie is its tone. There’s room here for both sadness and silliness, all of it warm-hearted enough so that you can’t help but be swept away by it. It’s a taste of what it feels like to actually read a certain type of children’s novel, and it’s refreshing to see it onscreen.
One of the biggest examples of this is the movie’s humor. There are some genuinely hilarious moments, but they’re all integrated into the story rather than feeling stuffed in. This is even true of the occasional moments of bathroom humor, which are so well-structured that even I found it entertaining instead of annoying. The attitude painted the jokes more as a natural part of life rather than something gross to wallow in, but the kids in the audience still loved them all.
Robert Downey Jr. is great as Dolittle, embracing the silliness without ever making the character too manic. He also does a good job with the film’s softer and more melancholy moments, handling them gently but believably. Michael Sheen is a master of mustache-twirling villainy, and he makes sure his Dr. Mudfly is a silly delight. Antonio Banderas is clearly having fun as King Rassouli, and he communicates that fun to the audience.
There are a few missteps, however.
They actually gave Dolittle an age-appropriate wife, which means that Banderas is far too young to be her father. And I’m honestly not sure exactly what accent Downey was trying for, but he definitely didn’t make it.
Still, those are small things when compared to the joys that can be found in the whole story. “Dolittle” may have had a hard time getting made, but the results were well worth it.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.