With Eddie Murphy’s modernized Dr. Dolittle behind us, Robert Downey Jr. brings the character back into his more whimsical and literary-influenced world. Dolittle is an at-times delightful slice of January cinema which is worth a few more laughs than one might suspect. While the film occasionally feels at odds with itself in regard to tonal consistency, certain players prove to understand the exact goofball production director Stephen Gaghan loosely grips. It’s a walk on the wild side about loss, friendship, and self-reclamation, yet still finds ample usage for potty humor and nutshots. A baffling grab-bag of scenes as unpredictable as Downey Jr.’s accent. Choices were made, for better or worse.
Robert Downey Jr. plays an astonishing physician who can speak the language of any animal. Residents of his wildlife sanctuary include rescued beasts from a polar bear who’s always cold (Yoshi, voiced by John Cena) to his cowardly gorilla companion (Chee-Chee, voiced by Rami Malek). Together they must travel afar in search of a mystery fruit with supposed magical healing powers in order to save Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). That’s if the good doctor can keep rival Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) two steps behind and roguish King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) from paying the imposed bounty on his head.
Universal will release Dolittle in theaters this Friday, January 17th. If you’re still debating whether to suit-up for this epic quest, here are three reasons to help your decision beyond “talking animals.”
1. Michael Sheen Gets It
Dolittle slips an “Ace” from its sleeve, and that’s Michael Sheen. His mustache-twirling villain is both daft and dastardly in overperformed doses. Dr. Müdfly’s obsession with Dolittle becomes this possessive in-joke that unlocks his own insecurities in the most hilarious ways. Cut to a sequence where the two gaze at each other through telescope lenses, as Müdfly’s hyper-sensitivity can make out Dolittle’s remark about his pursuer having a “weak chin.” Whenever the film calls for a frenzied outburst or almost muppet-like enthusiasm, Sheen obliges with vigor.
At times, Sheen appears to be acting in a separate movie than the one Gaghan commands. He’s wide-eyed, batty, and steals most scenes with these laugh-out-loud psyche breakdowns. The kind of villain drunk on his own shortcomings who has no problem sacrificing henchmen or acting like a cartoon come alive. A character who must wrestle with the idea that Dolittle, a man who dunks his head into an octopus tank and holds an underwater conversation, is still more successful and renowned. Sheen relishes every opportunity to entertain and ends up edging out even the charismatic Downey Jr. as the movie’s real hero.
2. The Animal Tomfoolery Is Never Boring
The vocal cast assembled for Dolittle’s zoological scamps is filled with highlights. Weird highlights that sometimes venture far from the film’s child-friendly vision, but highlights indeed. Like Octavia Spencer (as duck Dab-Dab) referencing Rush Hour or Craig Robinson (Kevin the squirrel) doing his best “Captain’s Log” impression from Star Trek (the latter also harboring a HILARIOUS human vendetta). John Cena and Kumail Nanjiani mend their unlikely friendship as an arctic predator and ostrich (for, um, reasons still unknown), while other speaking creatures range from French revolutionary “criminals” to dragonflies with their eyes on love (enter the always comical Jason Mantzoukas). There’s something so wholesome about Cena-bear verbalizing the words “That’s friendship, bro,” along with a laundry list of animal-themed puns.
Now, let’s go back to my previous comment of “choices were made.” Specifically, there are lines some of these animals drop that are bafflingly morbid and sometimes out of place in the “sophisticated” yet silly world of Dolittle. I’m speaking specifically of how multiple conversations exploit a prevalent and inexplicable “daddy issues” theme, or Nanjiani’s uttering of a joke about an omelette that’d make Bob Saget blush. One minute we’re sailing the high seas in this very swashbuckling adventure, the next Downey Jr. is bartering with ants in an homage to The Godfather. It’s a script that feels confused, blurring the lines of media influences while speeding through story work that uses choppy edit time-traveling in lieu of exposition or cinematic flow.
3. Getting Back To Basics
Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Dr. Dolittle is a grumbling mix of Scottish drawls and purely primal devotion that is always about how we save ourselves through saving others. Is it performative chaos since when we don’t hear Dolittle speak English to his animals, Downey Jr. is heard making the most insanely theatrical barnyard noises as a means of, for example, speaking to ducks through quacking. “Zany” be the descriptor here, but the film’s sense of adventure speeds ahead with big ideas. It’s not the smoothest ride as the film universe’s rules continue to change – breaking the fourth wall, plot developments that lead nowhere, sparse character detail – but one that should keep children entertained given how Act III is essentially one culminating passing of gas joke.
Here we are, in the thick of January. A month where studios drop titles they’ve deemed unsolvable puzzles when it comes to selling their product. Dolittle, adaptive nostalgia and all, fits this confounding mold. Jokes whiz over younger audiences while older patrons will remain bamboozled by slavish dedication to the film’s worst recurring gags. You’ll laugh at the audacity, Michael Sheen’s commitment, and countless veterinary puns tuned into Hugh Lofting’s preposterous source novelization. You’ll also remain dumbfounded by a lack of connective tissue as scenes jump from location to location without nary a continuity string. It’s extravagant, offbeat, and ridiculous in ways that lack the cult appeal of 2019’s Cats, which is either a positive or negative based on who’s speaking. January gonna January, y’all.
Dolittle is in theaters on Friday, January 17. Get tickets here.