Wednesday 12 February 2020

Dolittle ★★★☆☆

It feels like all I ever do is review remakes or reimaginings of stories that were far better when I was younger. Am I so out of touch? No, it’s the filmmakers that are wrong.

Imagine you’re Robert Downey Junior, moving on from one of the biggest cinematic experiences the world has ever seen. Like Keanu Reeves after The Matrix, or Daniel Radcliffe when he finally set down his wizard robes for good. There must be a sense of confusion, while a lack of direction is only to be expected after a project which has taken up a decent portion of your life. Downey Jr responded by doing what he does best, diving headfirst into the next big role on the horizon. It’s been a century since the first books about Dr Dolittle were first released, and over 20 since the last set of films. So far, so good, you might think.

However, a number of questionable decisions arise almost instantly. Let’s get the accent out of the way. RDJ has decided to evoke his inner Dirty Sanchez, with a slightly suspicious Welsh tint to his pronunciations. It wasn’t a problem when he took on the role of Sherlock and the accompanying English inflexions, but there’s something strange about his delivery. It’s an uncanny Welsh Valley, but it does help to separate him from other roles. Meanwhile, actual Welshman Michael Sheen plays the English Dr Blair Müdfly, further muddying the waters.

The film begins with the good Doctor living a decidedly reclusive life. Given the lack of human company, Dolittle gets by with a menagerie of animal pals, with many seeing him for a personal problem or two. Dolittle spies a couple of children in his extravagant estate during the intro, in the form of Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) who wants to be his apprentice, while Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) comes with a mission directly from Buckingham Palace. Long story short, the Queen is ill, so Stubbins and Dolittle have to go on an adventure in an attempt to find a journal which could prove to save her life.

Eddie Murphy will always be Dr Dolittle for me, although it could be a mix of nostalgia and the lack of overbearing CGI in the 1998 version that swings it overall. The 2020 edition is still a different take on the story, which is welcomed instead of a shot-for-shot remake of the prior films. While much of the early news discusses the film failing to do well at the box office, it’s not as bad as it’s being made out to be. It’s fairly action-packed, and the humans do most of the heavy lifting with solid performances. The voice acting also takes it up a level, allowing for respite as the action swings between various locations at a moments notice. (Inexplicably, they spend way too much time on a ship that could have been spent elsewhere in an extended travel sequence midway through.

There are a few offhand jokes which do land, and the unexpected ending is better than I could have hoped for. The same is true for the film on the whole, even if it’s really just a vehicle for RDJ in his post-Ironman phase. (Dr Dolittle is also in the public domain, so it’s not like it cost anything to get the rights to the story or characters.)

James Millin-Ashmore

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